Today, the Hippodrome is at the centre of Birmingham’s bustling and thriving Chinatown but 120 years ago, when the theatre was just opening, China was perceived as a very far-off, exotic and forbidding land. Not many Birmingham people would have known much about it, even though by then there was a small Chinese community in the area.
Acrobatics in Variety Days
Chinese acrobats, jugglers and balancers appeared regularly in Variety from the 1930s. On the 9th Anniversary of the Hippodrome’s joining the great Moss Empires circuit, which had been in 1924, a special Birthday Show included the Sue-Yee Chinese Troupe. A popular entertainer who repeatedly appeared on our stage during the 1940s was Eva May Wong. Billed as “China’s Sweetest Personality”, she entertained with plate spinning, acrobatics and contortion.
A famous Chinese troupe were the Lai Founs, who were on our stage in Variety in April, 1944 and May 1948. They comprised four men and two women who did plate-spinning on swaying bamboo poles. They have entered the history books, because they appeared on the opening day of the world’s first television service, broadcast by the BBC from Alexandra Palace, North London, on 02 November, 1936. After the official opening at 3:00pm and an interval with the time, weather and British Movietone News, the very first programme was “Variety” from 3:30pm to 4:00pm featuring The Lai Founs.
We have been lucky enough to stage the Peking (Beijing) Opera here at the Hippodrome on two separate occasions, the first in 1979 and the second in 1986. It is a very different form to that of the opera that we see annually by the Welsh National Opera. The Peking opera dates back to the 18th century and is rarely performed outside of China. It is a combination of Han Opera (the Mother of Peking opera), which is where its unique sound originates from and Xipi, referring to a shadow puppet show, which traditionally also encompasses singing. There are four traditional major roles in the Peking opera: The Sheng, The Dan, The Ching and The Chou and all elements have to be present for it to be classed as a Peking opera. The Sheng is the traditional male role and The Dan refers to any female character role and both of these characters can vary based on the character’s age, personality, strength and social status. The Jing is another male role who has a grotesquely painted face with its colour reflecting the character’s personality (e.g. red for good, yellow for brutal etc.). The Chou is a comedic or clown character and the ugliness and comedy of this character is used to drive away evil spirits.
Swan Lake by The Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China
The production of Swan Lake by the Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China saw the reimagination of the traditional Swan Lake ballet by combining it with extraordinary acrobatics whilst still using the original Tchaikovsky score. The show climaxes with the ballerina on one pointe, performing a pirouette, whilst balancing on top of her partner’s head. The show was built around that feat after it won the performers first prize in the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival in 2002. The Troupe wowed crowds here at the Hippodrome when it was staged in August 2011.
Sutra – Shaolin Monks
Sutra was a production created by choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in conjunction with 17 practising Chan Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China. The monks are masters of a unique type of martial arts, developed in the Sui and Tang dynasties as a way of protecting the monastery from attack. The Temple’s leader’s worked with the choreographer as they wanted to find a way to modernise the discipline, which still honoured its very traditional roots. The performance used simple, large wooden crates, which were moved in different ways to create walls, bridges, coffins and even a lotus flower. The production appeared on the Hippodrome stage in May 2013.
And today we work the Chinese Festival Committee to stage the yearly Chinese New Year Festival which attracts around 40,000 visitors each year. Find out how you can join the celebrations this weekend here.
Sophie Lewis & Ivan Heard