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Chinese acrobats bring high-flying act back to DL

When the Chinese Golden Dragon Acrobats first graced the stage of Detroit Lakes' Historic Holmes Theatre in April 2005, they dazzled the audience with their gravity-defying feats of artistry and athleticism.

Though Saturday's return engagement will still contain many of the classic elements that made their first appearance there so memorable, it's essentially an all-new show, according to Bill Fegan, who has served as the troupe's manager for 29 years.

"This group is from a different city in China than the one you saw before," he said. "Every few years we go to a different city and hunt for new acts. You're going to see the traditional acts like the spinning plates, the yo-yos, the tower of chairs and other crowd-pleasers.

"But there will be a lot of new things that people (in Detroit Lakes) have never seen."

There's one act involving a series of wheels and metal rings that is particularly memorable, Fegan said.

"It's really exciting," he added. "There are some (wheels) that look like a large hula hoop and are built for just one person, but we also have several that are quite large and have five or six people riding in them."

There's another group of five girls who balance and toss six volleyballs around between them -- using both their feet and hands. "That one's pretty sensational," Fegan noted.

In China, he explained, every city has at least one school for acrobats, and a professional company such as the Golden Dragons. The larger cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, have more than one school or training program and several professional troupes.

"These kids start out when they're seven or eight years old," he added. "The first thing they do is learn to walk on their hands. They can walk on their hands as well as they can walk on their feet... it's pretty amazing."

And that's just the beginning. From walking on their hands, they progress to the next level of skill, and then the next. "By the time they're 14 or 15, they're very accomplished in the basic skills."

"By the time they're 16, they've developed their own, singular act along with all the basic stuff."

The current troupe, which proved so popular that they had an eight-week run on Broadway last winter, ranges in age from as young as 17 to as old as 30.

"Most of them are 20, 21, 22," Fegan said. "They're athletes, and just like other professional athletes, they wear out at a certain point.

"They perform on stage for about 12-15 years, then they either become coaches at one of these schools or they take up some other profession."

As such, none of the current crop has been around as long as Fegan. He actually had a hand in establishing the first touring group, which included founder Danny Chang.

"I had a friend who was in the booking business, had his own booking agency," Fegan said of how he first became involved with the Golden Dragons. "He called me and said he had this group of Chinese acrobats coming to the U.S. and asked if I could help him get some dates (for bookings). I called some friends, and they said yes they would put them up and (help them) do a show. One school in Arkansas turned over the college kitchen to them, and they cooked a Chinese meal for all the students."

The first time Fegan saw them perform, his reaction was "Gosh, what a show!"

"There weren't many tours of Chinese acrobats in those days (the mid-1970s). One of the young guys in that group (Danny Chang) wanted to form his own troupe, and I worked with him on it. At that time, they didn't use acts from China, because it wasn't open to the U.S. -- they were from Taiwan."

Chang's father was the head of a national school for opera and acrobatics, so he knew of several performers who had recently graduated and were available to tour.

"So we put together a group called the Golden Dragons," Fegan said. Since that first trip around the world, the Dragons have "toured every state in the U.S., and many foreign countries. We've done thousands of performances."

To help provide them with the rice and noodles that are a staple of the Chinese diet, the acrobats tour with their own kitchen, stashed in one of the trailers attached to the "three big rigs" they use to traverse the country each year.

Besides the traveling kitchen, the Dragons also travel with "a lot of equipment, and very beautiful costumes," Fegan said.

"For each of the 10-12 different numbers in the show there's a different set of costumes," he said. "You never see them in the same costume twice during the show."

Recently, the group of 22 acrobats had a taste of fame, with an eight-week run on Broadway that began around Thanksgiving and continued through the New Year. They even made an appearance on the nationally syndicated morning talk show, "Live with Regis & Kelly."

"Regis gives out his own awards every year, the 'Rellys,' and they (the Dragons) won for most unusual act," Fegan said.

"They're amazing kids. What really sets them aside is their choreography. Angela Chang (Danny's wife) is the choreographer. In every act, the movement is carefully choreographed from the entrances to the exits."

Saturday night's show at the Historic Holmes Theatre begins at 7:30 p.m. Advance tickets are $16.50 for adults, $8.25 for students; day-of-show tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students. This is the season kickoff event for the theater. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call the Holmes Theatre Box Office at 218-844-SHOW (7469) or visit the Web site, Tickets may now be purchased online as well as over the phone or at the box office, located at 826 Summit Ave. on the north side of the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454