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'Cirque Shanghai: Dragon's Thunder' on the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier ★★★

Chris Jones

12:14 AM CDT, May 30, 2013

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So here's an indication of how far China has come: The last motorcycle rider in the Globe of Death in this year's "Cirque Shanghai" on Navy Pier is a woman. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has had more riders — we Globe of Death fans like to see at least seven, and I've seen eight cheating mortality — but, in this macho business, they're all usually dudes.

You would have not seen a woman undoing her helmet and letting her locks flow when this Chinese circus show first played Navy Pier eight years ago. Nor would you have seen the decidedly sensual Pas de Deux Contortion that's a striking part of this year's show. It's still appropriate for a family attraction in the outdoor Skyline Stage (the male and female duet is not that steamy), but for we students of the changing nature of Chinese entertainment, it's still a sea change from the asexual tone of the early resident shows that came to the USA to showcase the traditional circus and gymnastic skills taught in China for generations.

I've seen seven of the eight years' worth of "Cirque Shanghai" presentations (I took last year off; as with Scrooge and Tiny Tim, sometimes you need a break from young people jumping through hoops, especially when those hoops crop up at other times of the year). They've all been decent summer shows that are among the classier offerings at this, mercifully, soon-to-be-improved tourist magnet that does yet show this city at its best. But taking the years as a whole, you really can see some changes therein that reflect the loosening up of China. I speak of the cultural exports of the nation. These remarkable athletes always have been plenty flexible.

The shows have become more contemporary: This year, many in the cast of 36 in "Dragon's Thunder" are exuberant individual performers who are far removed from the more regimented company that played the pier in 2006-2008 or so. I suspect Miao Miao Chen, a former performer herself, who took over directing this show in 2009, has been a factor there. The young people who make up this company are now allowed so much more freedom to be themselves.

That means the comedy is better (there's a stellar routine involving a fellow catching things on his head) and the daredevils jumping around the Wheel of Destiny (one of them donning a blindfold) are all the more exuberant. Chinese performers in these traditional circuses never used to fake anything, that being a violation of the classic dignity of the time-honored routines. Now they goof with the audience all the time, and the guys are all sporting mohawk hairdos, replete with tufts of varying colors. The times, they have a-changed.

Paradoxically, this new personality means that the old disciplines can be better honored, and Cirque Shanghai remains mostly composed of these routines: the Chinese Flex Bar, the Silks et al. All are executed very well: The flex bar is always one of my favorites, especially when stilts are added into the bouncy mix. This year's show also adds traditional Chinese drumming — Mulan's Dragon Drums, the act is called, with an eye toward branding — which is not something one usually sees in these shows found mostly in the likes of Branson, Mo., Orlando, Fla., and, of course, Navy Pier.

At the end of the matinee Wednesday, the youngsters (and they are mostly, but not all, youngsters) ran out into the house at the end of the show, right into a group of wildly admiring Chicago Public Schools students offering them high-fives. It was a small moment, perhaps, in Chicago's long, tortured attempts to welcome more international youth, artists and visitors, but it put a lump in my throat.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Sept. 2

Where: Skyline Stage on Navy Pier

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Tickets: $15.50-29.50 at 800-745-3000, or at the gate, or at ticketmaster.com/shanghai