Through the most gracious efforts of the organizers of The Big Apple Circus, myself and Dody Kidder received an interview last summer with Qian Jian Ping, a juggler from the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe. He and two brothers were appearing with the circus last season, and we saw the show in Hanover, N.H.
We attended an afternoon performance armed with a few gifts (two issues of Juggler's World, one of which was the Albert Lucas cover, a couple of IJA stickers and a new-wave yo-yo), and enjoyed the show immensely.
The all-female plate spinners did astonishing tricks with incredible finesse. Some of the more memorable moments included backrolls while spinning eight plates and head-to-head stands while each spun eight plates. Most remarkably, one of the acrobats balanced on a four legged stool (only two legs of which were supported) which was in turn supported on the headdress of the acrobat below. While each of the women spun eight plates, the acrobat on top bent over backwards and plucked a rose from her partner's headdress with her teeth! Understandably, the crowd went wild!
Next, three male jugglers took to the floor using badminton rackets as props. The demonstrations of three and four racket work was flawless, with pirouettes and flair. We saw five racket flashes and excellent back crosses for many throws. Six rackets were done in simultaneous and alternating fashion, culminating in a pickup to seven. There was a pirouette under six rings with a blind catch to a back foot. They also demonstrated a seven ring flash and eight and nine rings, ending with them stacked around the neck. The trio then passed 18 rings between them, ending with them stacked around their necks. At this point one took his stack of six rings and in a single throw tossed them around the necks and arms of the other two.
After the show Dody and I were taken to meet the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe's translator. A sagacious, sweet and diminutive woman (whose name I will not mention for her political protection) greeted us warmly. While giving me a quick pre-interview questioning, she noticed my Juggler's World magazines and other gifts. I handed her the Albert Lucas cover issue and, as she thumbed through it, I explained about the gifts.
She was astonished at the photos in the magazine, and I was relieved because now we were talking juggling. When she saw the picture of Lucas with 12 rings she became particularly excited, and counted the number of rings. I was most curious about how much these eastern jugglers knew about jugglers in the West, and this told me that at least the translator was seeing something new.
At this point Qian Jian Ping joined us, still wearing his makeup. He is the elder brother of the trio of jugglers we had seen and the director of the Chinese Acrobatic Association. The usual exchange of greetings were postponed temporarily as the translator quickly turned to show Ping the Lucas picture with 12 rings. In subdued, but obviously excited Chinese, they had a rapid exchange over what they saw.
I presented Ping with the gifts I'd brought and the translator pointed out the IJA application, whereupon I explained further about the IJA. I also gave a demonstration of the yo-yo, as Ping did not know what it was. It immediately brought a smile to his face.
We moved to the comfortable environs of Ping's trailer to conduct the interview. I asked how much contact or knowledge Ping had of jugglers in the West. Excusing himself, he left the room and returned with two books. One was Jonglerie by Karl-Heinz Ziethen and the other was The Complete Juggler by Dave Finnigan. Ping showed us two pictures of he and his brothers in the Ziethen book. One one opposing page was a picture of Anthony Gatto. Ping had never heard of him, nor any other western jugglers at all. In fact, the only contact he had had with jugglers in the West was with myself and with two fellows who had given him the books when he was at Lincoln Center earlier in the summer. I checked the books for an inscription to find out the donor's name, but found nothing.
While showing us the books, the translator and Ping again looked at the picture of Lucas and in all earnestness wanted me to explain "how he does this?" Not knowing myself, I was precious little help to them.
Ping and his brothers, Qian Jian Hua and Qian Jian Wen, worked individually as jugglers before combining their talents in 1973. While in their current act they use rings and rackets, they are also accomplished with balls, clubs and hats. Ping did not at first recognize the torches pictured in an ad for Todd Smith Products, but when I explained what they were he said he had used them also.
Like so many circus people, Ping and his brothers come from three generations of jugglers, and their mother also performed magic.
At the end of the interview I asked Ping through the translator if he wished to share any thoughts through this article with jugglers all over the world. The translator, after relating my proposition, and Ping, being lost for words, asked what exactly what I meant. I suggested perhaps a message of general fraternity or perhaps some statement on the then still-recent events in Beijing. The translator became quiet and looked nervously at Ping who only glanced back at her. She asked, "What events in Beijing?"
Immediately I was sorry I had asked. I thought to myself they may know only the Chinese government's side of what happened to the student demonstrations for democracy. And I was in dire fear that I had already, or might yet, offend them.
She did, however, ask in a non-didactic manner, and I gave a short and delicate scenario of what I knew about the repression of the student movement in Tienanmen Square. The translator made a quick, brief statement to Ping. His head was down, he was looking at the floor with his feet crossed. I was getting an unhealthy feeling of being an ambassador of ill will. The translator said that the careers of Ping and his brothers was of paramount importance right now. They must focus on that, and as artists be separate of politics and policies of any state.
With that summary the interview was concluded. More frivolous conversation ensued and soon we were all smiles again. We exchanged salutations and as we parted the translator asked how I might be contacted in the future. With expressed hopes of seeing them again, I gave her one of my "Dr. Juggle" business cards.
The Big Apple Circus had one last engagement for the season in Shelburne, Vt., before retiring to New York City. A few days after that final stand, four members of the Nanjing troupe defected in Brooklyn on the day before they were to return to China. The translator was among them.
Perhaps my perception of her guarded reactions during the tense part of the interview were mistaken, as observation by its very nature so frequently is. Or had I perhaps awakened her anxiety about the very near future? Were Ping and his brothers three of the other defectors? I do not know. I only hope that the futures of these very fine people is happy and prosperous.
I do know that the artists of the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe is a must-see!
Dennis Williams, a former competitive bodybuilder and Vermont state power-lifting champion, is now a professional juggler who performs throughout New England as Dr. Juggle or The Balloon Guy.