By Tien-Shun Lee
After walking, spinning and doing a headstand on a unicycle on a loosely extended wire, Big Apple Circus performer Cong Tian put his hands on one knee and leaned back on the thin thread as if he were lying in an invisible hammock suspended above the ring below.
Tian’s “slack wire” circus act in the Big Apple Circus show, which will run through Monday in Cunningham Park in Fresh Meadows, is only about seven minutes long, but it showcases a lifetime of training.
“As a child, sometimes our teacher would make us do a handstand for one hour,” said the 5-foot-9-inch, 147-pound performer Friday, a day before the opening show.
Now 41, Tian explained that he was chosen to be an acrobat when he was 10 years old by representatives of the Chinese government. For six years, he lived and trained in a special performing arts school in Dalian, China, where he grew up and continues to live today, when he is not performing with groups in other cities and countries.
“They pick you based on your physique and your parents’ physique,” Tian said. “It’s very coveted because if you are chosen, then for your whole life the nation will pay for you and arrange work for you.”
In acrobatics school, Tian and about 50 classmates would start their day at 5 a.m. At 5:30 a.m., they would begin practicing somersaults, handstands and other acrobatic skills before breaking to wash up and have breakfast at 7 a.m.
Breakfast was followed by a one-hour dance class, a one-hour acrobatics class and a two-hour class where students would practice their specialty, which was chosen by the teachers. Tian’s specialty in school was human balancing.
“I was thin and small, so I would be on top of the human balancing structure,” said Tian, pointing to a photograph in which he is standing on the shoulders of a man who was standing on the shoulders of another man.
After lunch at noon, students would break for a two-hour nap before attending academic classes such as language and mathematics.
Following dinner at 6 p.m., students had about two hours of free time before going to bed at 8:30 p.m., when a teacher would pass by their rooms to make sure every light was turned off.
“Every day we would look forward to the time after dinner when we were free to do what we wanted,” Tian recalled.
In 1977, Tian graduated from the Dalian performing arts school at age 16. He began working for the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe as arranged by the government. As he grew taller and heavier, Tian said it became harder for acrobats to support him on top of human balancing structures, so he began training for another specialty — the slack wire.
“I very quickly learned the slack wire because I have the right physique,” Tian said.
Tian performed with the Dalian troupe throughout China and in 1983, the Chinese government began sending him abroad to perform with other troupes, including the highly prestigious Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris, the Circus Knie in Switzerland, the Circus Kronebau in Munich and the International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo.
In 1999 in Monte-Carlo, Tian was recruited by Paul Binder, Big Apple Circus’s founder and ringmaster, to perform in the United States. He arrived in the country for the first time on Aug. 30, 2002 and has performed with the Big Apple Circus in Washington, D.C., Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas and several other locations.
“America is a very prosperous and powerful country, and I wanted to have the opportunity to come here,” Tian said.
“It is very interesting. I never thought that the prosperous U.S. would be like China in so many ways. People are very casual — they don’t pay attention to red lights, the cars honk. It’s very messy and wasteful. Small cars have very big exhaust pipes.”
“The European personality is very different,” he added. “In Europe, if there is a red light, not even one car will pass.”
Tian said he loves to travel and has been all over the world from Asia to Europe to South America. Here in the city, he has ventured out on his own, taking the bus and subway to visit Battery Park City and Chinatown in Manhattan.
“I feel very lucky to be in this profession, even though sometimes I get very tired,” he said. “In other professions, people don’t get to travel and have their expenses paid for.”
Tickets to the Big Apple Circus range from $13 to $34 for weekday evenings and weekends, and from $15 to $25 for weekday matinees. For more information, call TicketMaster at 212-307-4100, or visit the circus’ Web site at www.bigapplecircus.org.
Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.