Trapeze artist Guang Rong Lu has balanced a lifetime of teaching more than just circus skills. John Gascoigne reports.
For a man who spent much of his working life standing on his head, Guang Rong Lu maintains an impressive equilibrium. An all-round performer and trapeze artist with China's Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe for 22 years, Lu loves nothing better than welding and carpenting props in his Nunawading work shed, reading biographies, world politics and philosophy.
As head of circus studies at the National Institute of Circus Arts at Swinburne University, Lu applies, daily, his tertiary qualifications in business, philosophy and health to confer a holistic grounding in circus and in life.
The beneficiaries are about 25 circus wannabes who Lu and two co-panelists select as each year's intake. After three years packed with academic study and gut-busting training in a multitude of circus skills, they qualify for Australia's only Bachelor of Circus Arts degree.
Mr Lu, as he's known to the students and staff, was head trainer with the Wodonga High School-based Flying Fruit Fly Circus when headhunted in 1997 by NICA's inaugural director, Pamela Creed. He eventually joined the institute full time after the Sydney Olympics.
Creed, with a background in the arts and education, has been responsible for introducing many innovative, industry-focused arts training programs in TAFE colleges. As head of Swinburne's arts department from 1992-98, she secured funding for research that showed circus and physical theatre to be the fastest-growing international entertainment products.
Last year, as Lu watched public performances by the institute's first 17 graduates on trapezes and mats beneath the 14-metre-high ceiling, he experienced something akin to revelatory joy.
"Performing was always exciting when I was young," says Lu, 49, who retired a year ago from performing solo at corporate functions. "But watching these young people was exciting, too. Exciting and very fulfilling." All the 2003 graduates have found circus work. "Very talented, self-motivated students will always find work," he says.
Luck helps, too. Lu was one of five children. His father was a professional player of a two-stringed version of the violin, who worked in a performing arts complex in Shanghai. One elder sister, Xiao Zhu, used to hang around the circus next door.
Lu says she was chosen for her "cuteness" rather than any obvious, innate ability at the age of 11. But she went on to attain pre-eminent status as a National First Grade Artist, and joined the Nanjing troupe in 1957. She is now teaching Fruit Fly students in Wodonga in her brother's footsteps while on a temporary working visa.
So how was Lu chosen? "I was cute, too," he laughs. He was also "extremely skinny" and flexible, which, in 1965, impressed two auditioners from the Nanjing troupe. He'd had no circus experience, but at age 11 he told them he wanted to join up, and answered their questions on a range of academic subjects unhestitatingly, establishing a mental acuity to match his reflexes and flexibility.
A month later a letter arrived inviting him to Nanjing, 1595 kilometres from his home. Given his parents's blessing, Lu began his working life while most of his siblings remained at school. Academic schooling accompanied the circus training.
Lu recalls that the novelty of a wage and strong friendships forged in the closeness of dormitory living and circus training quickly compensated for the wrench of leaving home. "We felt privileged to be circus performers."
His early skills were as a see-saw artist, whip-cracker, and poles, hoops and adagio performer. Fifteen years into his Nanjing career, he trained his 170-centimetre, 64-kilogram body to create a niche spot as a head-trapeze artist - balancing on his head on a trapeze bar, eventually sharing the bar with a young woman, also inverted, her head resting on Lu's feet - all with a "look, ma, no hands" flourish. It was a skill he worked up over eight months, from floor to 10 metres, but always with a harness for safety.
"The troupe, and the Communist Party, always put safety first," Lu says. Consequently, he never saw a permanently-disabling injury in his Nanjing years, a happy circumstance that's continued in Australia.
For 22 years Lu performed five or six shows a week. In that time, he travelled overseas on more than 30 occasions, including two trips to Australia in the 1980s.
China's Cultural Revolution turned his troupe from a circus to a propaganda machine, all of its performances from 1968-72 being a homage to Chairman Mao's Communist Party. "We told visual stories of the Vietnam War, construction workers and farmers, and the good works of the People's Liberation Army."
Lu now laughs at the figurative backflip performed by Mao's feared wife, Jiang Qing. When the deep freeze between China and the US thawed in 1972 with cultural exchanges incorporating touring Chinese circuses, it was the previously Yankee-hating Jiang Qing who questioned managements of the revolutionary troupes: "Will they really want to watch that?". Performing forced marriages as a circus "entertainment" had never sat comfortably with Lu, who says: "Not every story can be told by a circus skill."
The end of the Cultural Revolution and a return to traditional circus released a collective sigh of relief. Circuses could again devise their own programs.
His two trips to Australia with the troupe were especially enjoyable to Lu. By the second of his two subsequent cultural exchange stints of teaching at the Fruit Fly circus, he knew he wanted to be an Aussie.
On that second exchange trip he spent 10 months learning English at Latrobe University. After five years at the Fruit Flys and a term of teaching and performing with Circus Oz, in 2000 Lu increased his commitment to a life in Australia.
In Sydney and Albury he organised new intakes of 11 and 12-year-olds for the Fruit Flys; he designed the Olympic Games's opening ceremony float and auditioned 15 hopefuls with their eyes on NICA after being approached by Pam Creed to join the institute.
Lu has always worked long and hard. His day at NICA may start with working in the rigging 12 metres above the floor and end nine hours later stitching canvas props, with a myriad of teaching and training tasks in between. And he still gets a kick out of demonstrating to his students nine metres above the foam-rubber mats.
His only child, a son, 19, is doing an accountancy degree. But Lu seems more proud of his progeny's circus skills, declaring the lad could ride a unicycle before he mastered a bicycle and is now able to ride the one-wheel cycle while kicking a bowl from his foot to his head, where it remains neatly balanced.