Raising the big top

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Raising the big top

BUCHEON ― The sign beside the Dongchun Circus’s ticket booth confidently states: If you don’t laugh, if you don’t have fun, we’ll give you a full refund.”
And while this isn’t the greatest show on Earth, no one is asking for their money back, either. People visiting the Dongchun Circus know that stepping beneath the big top is like taking a trip back in time.
The Dongchun Circus was the first independent circus to be formed during the colonial period and, at 75 years of age, it’s one of the last surviving troupes in Korea. It’s named after Park Dong-chun, a famous acrobat who ran away from a Japanese circus to establish his own troupe in Korea.
To this day, the Dongchun Circus is heavily skewed toward acrobatics. In Bucheon, in Gyeonggi province, where the circus is performing until May 18, audiences get to see both the Korean performers and a troupe of acrobats from Ningxia province in northern China.
Moments after the ringmaster announces the start of the two-hour show, a Chinese magician appears to perform a few classic illusions. She holds up an empty stainless steel cup. Then she gives it a few shakes and rubs it with her magic handkerchief. Moments later, she’s pouring juice from the cup, prompting smiles and applause from the audience.
While Dongchun Circus trades heavily on nostalgia ― serving up traditional stunts and traditional snacks, like dried squid and warm popcorn ― there have been a few concessions to modern times.
The Chinese troupe performs with inline skates and, at breakneck speeds, does somersaults, jumps and leaps in a segment that should be prefaced with the announcement, “Kids, don’t try these stunts at home.”
Next up is “Miss Flower,” whom the ringmaster bills as “a mermaid who flies in the air.” Hanging by her legs from a pair of rings, she swings eight meters (26 feet) above the ground and is spun round and round by her male partner.
At gut-wrenching speeds that defy the laws of physics, she performs a series of flips, spins and rolls, often flying well beyond the bounds of her safety net below.
Miss Flower is a petite 18-year-old Korean contortionist-cum-acrobat whose real name is Kim Ggotnim. She used to be stuffed into a plastic cube no larger than a rabbit hutch. Once she was squeezed inside the cube like a crumpled piece of paper, her partner would close the lid and do handstands on Ms. Kim and the box.
But Ms. Kim has grown up, somewhat late in life, prompting the switch to aerial stunts. “I’m too big to fit into the box anymore,” she laments, somewhat bitterly after the show. “I had to lose weight [to compensate for her growth], develop some other talents or quit.”
Ms. Kim thought about a career in acting. But since there isn’t much demand for contortionists on television, she pursued her aerial act ― which is tame by Dongchun Circus standards.
The troupe still stages its high-wire motorbike stunt: In a fit of pure adrenaline-charged lunacy, one man stands atop a motorcycle as it drives along an elevated metal wire while two people hang below, one straddling an aluminum ladder and another, upside down, on a swing.
Last year, in Ulsan, one of the Dongchun motorbike performers plunged 18 meters, missing the safety net. He remains in a coma.
Miss Kim, who took out additional life insurance after the accident, appears after the high-wire motorcycle act with Kim Young-hee. At age 38, Kim Young-hee is the oldest member of the company. She began performing acrobatics when she was 7.
“It still frightens me after all these years,” Kim Young-hee says after the show. “Every performance, I know only too well that I could be seriously hurt if I do something wrong.” (She severely injured her back 15 years ago while practicing on an aerial hoop for a show in Gangneung. )
This wasn’t a good afternoon. Kim Young-hee slipped twice during her afternoon performance. The first time, her leg trembled and she lost her footing, quickly grabbing the wire, as Kim Ggotnim stood on her shoulders.
Kim Ggotnim smiled to the audience as if the move had been planned; Kim Young-hee didn’t.
The aerialists say that fear is a constant part of their lives. Park Gwang-hwan was once an aerial acrobat until he blacked out, missed his hand grip and fell seven meters to the ground. Today he’s a juggler.
But it’s this element of risk - and the love of nostalgia ― that keeps crowds coming back year after year, even as circuses are supplanted by other forms of entertainment: movies, television, the Internet, video games, even theater and dance as Korean audiences grow increasingly sophisticated.
Yet the young and old still come to see, as the ringmaster says, “the most dangerous circus you’ll ever see in your life.”
During the latter half of the show, the eight Ningxia acrobats do traditional plate spinning, contortions and another set of Rollerblade stunts.
Most of them arrived in Korea last August and have performed across the country with the Dongchun Circus. Most are young girls, aged 8 to 20, who were selected for the troupe while attending a special state-run arts school.
“Audiences in Korea have been very warm,” says Yang Chae, an 18-year-old acrobat, relaxing on her bunk after the show. “Of course there are times we get homesick, but we get to go to lots of different places.”
Other members of the circus aren’t as gracious ― at least to the Ningxia performers. “The Chinese performers look splendid. But they somehow lack depth,” sniffs Kim Young-hee, the veteran acrobat.
But depth isn’t something that audiences look for when they drive 90 minutes from Seoul to Sang-dong, an emerging satellite city by Bucheon, where giant apartment complexes are swallowing the few remaining traces of Korea’s rural past.
“There’s something about circuses that keeps the audiences and the performers coming back,” notes Park Han-guk, Dongchun’s assistant ringmaster.
For the audiences, it’s the dust and the old-fashioned thrills. For the acrobats, it’s something else.
“Some performers quit to perform in nightclubs, where the pay is better,” Mr. Park says. “But they eventually come back. They can’t keep this shabby stage out of their minds.”


by Park Soo-mee

The Dongchun Circus runs through May 18 in Wonmi district, Sang-dong, Bucheon. Shows are staged at 1:30, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. There is an additional performance at 11 a.m. Saturday.
To get to the circus by rail, take the Korean National Railroad to Bucheon. Get off at Songnae Station and then take bus No. 5-1. The circus tent is beside the outdoor set of the television drama “Yainsidae.”
Some members of the Dongchun Circus are performing with an acrobatic troupe from Harbin, China, at Seoul’s Children’s Grand Park. Performances run through May 30.
For inquires about both shows, call (032) 324-7255 or (02) 6383-9141.

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