Although she performed all over Western Europe and throughout Asia as a young acrobat, Li Liu said she is happiest with her career as it is today.
“I guess in a way my career has been a bit backwards,” Liu said. “When I was young, acrobatics was a high-pressure job. Now I enjoy what I do a lot more.”
A freelance performer based in the United States — and her own boss — Liu will perform a one-woman acrobatic show for children and families at 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday in Smith Wilkes Hall as part of the Family Entertainment Series. Her routine will include such spectacular acts as hand balancing, plate spinning, artistic cycling, ribbon dancing and foot juggling.
A frequent performer at schools, Liu will also invite volunteers onstage as part of her routine, and participants can try their hand at plate spinning and a simple ribbon dance.
“I love performing for kids because I am oftentimes the first acrobat they have ever seen live,” said Liu, who is performing for the first time at Chautauqua Institution. “Their reactions to what I do are very genuine.”
Growing up in a Chinese circus family, Liu was inspired to take up acrobatics at a young age.
Her father was traveling with a kung fu performance group in China when he saw his first circus at age 16, and immediately decided that was what he wanted to do.
In turn, he started training Liu when she was 6 years old. At age 7, she left home to attend The Chinese National Circus School in Beijing. Liu trained there for 11 months a year, eight hours a day, until she was 16.
“I was lucky that I was well suited to acrobatics,” Liu said. “Also, my father was a very tough disciplinarian, but he was also an excellent teacher. He was always trying to find a better way for me and my sister to learn.”
Liu’s youngest sister still lives in China and is an acrobatic coach responsible for creating acts and shows. The two sisters often performed together as young acrobats, receiving “The Golden Lion,” the highest prize at the China WuQiao International Circus Festival, for their hand balancing act in 1995. Before that, in 1984, Liu received a gold medal for her artistic cycling at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris.
During her career, Liu performed with such major circuses as Zirkus Knie in Switzerland and Circus Krone in Germany. She is often introduced as “a Chinese acrobat,” which she said is due to her training and because China is known for producing great acrobats.
Chinese acrobatics are said to date back at least 2,000 years, according to a brief history of the performance art on Liu’s website. Acrobatics in China have gone through several cycles. In the 1940s, more than 100 acrobatic schools opened — but then many were shuttered during the political chaos of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The 1970s and ’80s brought back interest in acrobatics.
In 2000, Liu came to the U.S. with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She toured the country for two years, and then moved to the United States as a freelance performer in 2003. Here, Liu has appeared during NBA and WNBA halftime shows, and in September 2010 performed on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
Liu now lives with her husband in central Connecticut, and this summer will perform throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
All told, she has been doing acrobatics for 44 years.
“In February of this year, I celebrated my 50th birthday,” Liu said. “Most of my friends that I grew up performing with in China have been retired for 20 years.”