Lu Yi is transplanting the centuries-old art of Chinese circus to the Bay Area. Since the early 1990s, the former star performer and artistic director of the world-renowned Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe has turned the Circus Center into the most comprehensive Chinese acrobatics program outside of China. Spark checks in on Lu Yi as two of his American protégés, Olga Kosova and Philip Rosenberg, share their professional debut in the Pickle Circus’s “The Birdhouse Factory.”
Before coming to America, Lu Yi was well-known in China, as both an acrobat and an artistic director, for his whimsical tricks that stunned circus audiences. His skills in this traditional art form, however, were not popular with the Communist regime. In 1970, followers of Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution ransacked his house and demanded that he give up his art. When Lu Yi refused, he was locked away, unable to see family or loved ones for an entire year. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, Lu Yi decided to leave China for good, to establish his art in the United States and eventually, he hopes, across the world.
Chinese circus is a far cry from the loud spectacles of lion tamers and human cannonballs most often associated with Western big tops. Chinese acrobats spend a lifetime studying the subtle, even spiritual principles of force, balance and agility. Learning the acrobatic arts is excruciatingly difficult, and Lu Yi teaches his students to always keep in mind the traditional Chinese saying “Training is bitter.” But years of tireless effort have paid off for Lu Yi’s students, as their debut is met with resounding success. The circus’s careful combination of theater, dance and art direction produces an unusual, lyrical performance unlike any other.
San Francisco School of Circus Arts was founded as a project of the Pickle Family Circus in 1984 by Wendy Parkman and Judy Finelli. Lu Yi became a trainer and artistic director of the school in 1990 and established the San Francisco Circus in 1996 to give his students performing opportunities. The school changed its name in 2001 to the Circus Center, which now encompasses the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, the New Pickle Circus and the San Francisco Youth Circus. The Circus Center is the only school outside of China that specializes in Chinese acrobatics.