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Acts of skill

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20th-century developments > General characteristics > Acts of skill

Photograph:Tightrope, a Polish circus (Cyrk) poster by Jan Sawka, 1974/79.
Tightrope, a Polish circus (Cyrk) poster by Jan Sawka, 1974/79.
Jan Sawka/Contemporary Posters, N.Y.

Circus acts have always crossed national borders and, traditionally, certain nationalities tend to dominate specific areas of circus performance. Eastern Europeans became known for acrobatics and tumbling over the course of the 20th century. In the groundbreaking high-wire act of the Russian Voljansky troupe, the wire changed from being horizontal to being at an oblique angle, while the tension was maintained. Another unique act, the Koch sisters, performed on a giant semaphore arm that revolved slowly as they balanced on the outside edge. In the late 20th century one of the most renowned Russian trapeze acts, “The Flying Cranes,” used dramatic devices to tell the story of fallen Soviet war heroes whose souls are transformed into cranes. The acrobats fly through the air in white costumes, highlighted by dramatic theatrical lighting and smoke and accompanied by well-known Russian music.

Chinese acrobats also became especially renowned for unique acts emphasizing balance and coordination, such as the “Peacock Bicycle,” which featured a human pyramid of 17 people atop a single bicycle.

Mexican acrobats became known for their skill at the flying trapeze. Trapeze artist Tito Gaona first performed in 1964 at age 15 and—even blindfolded—flawlessly performed the triple somersault from bar to catcher. In 1982 Miguel Vasquez became the first person to do a quadruple somersault from bar to catcher in a public performance.

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