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Expats grapple with Chinese circus arts, wrestling

Generally, when someone says they want to run away and join the circus, people take it with a pinch of salt. But when 23-year-old Emma Phillips told her parents she wanted to perform in a circus, she was absolutely serious.

So serious, in fact, that New Zealand-born Phillips flew halfway across the world to study at the Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School in a rural town famous for acrobatic schools in Hebei Province.

She arrived there four months ago with only a basic grasp of Chinese and, until the recent arrival of a Finnish man and woman, she was the only foreigner in the area with around 280,000 residents.

"No one speaks English here, so I was pretty much dropped in it," she says. "It's good to learn the hard way. It's starting to be less like me being a three-year-old foreigner. I'm starting to be able to join conversations and talk about random things," Phillips tells Shanghai Daily in a recent Skype interview.

Her 30-year-old coach, Liu Lin, also found communication challenging at the start. "It was a disaster when she started four months ago, we couldn't communicate with each other," she says in a telephone interview with Shanghai Daily. "Now we have developed ways to communicate without language, so it's going well and will get better in the next eight months before she graduates."

In addition to language barriers, the training has been tough. As well as being the only foreigner, she is the only adult - the other 180 students are aged between four and 14.

The students all live at the school, and are from the area.

Liu herself studied at the school from nine years old until she was 15, and since then has taught there. She has also taught other foreigners, most of whom began training when they were older than the rest of the students.

"Because they are older, they learn better in terms of digesting the guidelines, but physically, they are not as good as Chinese kids who started when they were less than 10 years old," the coach says.

Despite this, Liu says the 169cm-tall Phillips, who has a medium build, is doing well and will succeed. "Wuqiao is widely known in the acrobatic field, and our graduates have an advantage when they return to their home country to practice and perform."

To achieve her goals, Phillips practices six days a week for at least eight hours, training in contortion, aerial hoop, spinning small squares of carpet on her hands and feet, and juggling a one-meter-square table - a skill very few Westerners have learned.

I dreamed a dream

"When I tell people I can juggle table, they think I'm nuts," she says, laughing. "It's nice to know that if I train really, really hard I could be in quite a select group."

She is also learning to juggle Chinese umbrellas. "They're stupidly difficult. Whenever I tell Chinese people that I'm training in them, they're like 'Why'?" She picks the skills she wants to learn and discusses with her coach about whether they would be feasible.

She's often bruised and in pain from her intensive training, but the main challenge for Phillips is being so cut off from her friends and family.

"It does get pretty hard. Sometimes I just want to be around people, and I want hugs, and just to be around friends. Skype is really good - I can talk to my family and friends," she says. "This is probably one of the biggest challenges I'll ever go through. It's pretty crazy to be this isolated."

Despite all the challenges, Phillips is committed to her dream of one day performing in a circus company, touring the world with a show that combines circus, theater and dance.

It was a dream that began nine years ago, when her father took her to see the Cirque du Soleil.

"It was the most amazing hour and a half of my life. I didn't breathe or blink, I was just absolutely mesmerized," says the girl from Whangarei, the northernmost city in New Zealand and regional capital of Northland. "After that, I said 'Dad, that's what I'm going to do'."

She had been a dancer since she was four, training in jazz, contemporary, cabaret and ballet, and had wanted to be a dancer until the age of 14, when she decided on the circus.

While her natural flexibility was sometimes a hindrance for dance, it was helpful in acrobatics. After Cirque du Soleil, Phillips printed off contortion poses from the Internet, and spent hours "rolling around" at home, trying to do them.

When she finished high school, Phillips studied for a diploma in circo arts at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, rather than studying contemporary dance as her mother had hoped. Most of her friends went to university, and couldn't understand Phillips' choice. "They're quite amazed at what I'm doing and that it's actually a career," she says.

After gaining her diploma, she toured with Circus Aotearoa before training at the Beijing Acrobatics School in 2010. She was drawn to China since she had become interested in foot juggling, a famous Chinese skill. She had also heard of the Chinese school from a New Zealand graduate.

But while she made good friends in Beijing, it wasn't as useful for professional development. The school accepted any foreigners, regardless of skill level.

So one day, Phillips hopped on a five-hour train to Wuqiao County to meet the principal of one of China's most famous acrobatic schools.

"I'd come from Beijing, which is just hectic, to this little town, where I was walking down a dirt road. There were paddocks with sheep everywhere," she recalls. She explained to the headmaster what she wanted to do, via her friend who translated over the phone from Beijing. He was impressed by videos of her training back in Beijing, and she managed to score a place.

She has been in Wuqiao since November last year and hopes to stay until December - she still wants to master juggling a table with one foot.

Unfortunately, though, the money is running out to pay monthly NZ$1,000 (US$847) fees covering tuition, board, water and Internet access. She spends all her spare time applying for scholarships. Her parents, who have supported her all along, remind her that if this doesn't work, she can never look back and say she didn't do enough.

To most people, being a circus performer doesn't sound like a lucrative career, however, Phillips says those who combine skills with performance flare can be very successful.

"When you're watching a circus troupe, your like, 'Holy crap, I can't believe there are seven people standing on top of each other and the little one on top is doing a hand stand and they're all on a unicycle. But they all look so angry, and the costumes are bad, the music's bad, the choreography's bad. It's got to be the whole package," she says.

The more skills a performer has, the more versatile and employable he or she is, Phillips says, so it's good to have one major, really good act, with a few different acts on the side.

It's fair to say Phillips is more determined than most people her age, sticking with her goal despite loneliness, injury, financial difficulties and the language barrier.

"I've got so much drive because it's what I want," she says. "I'm a perfectionist, and I'm not happy with my level at the moment. I want to be at a level where I'm surprised at myself."

What she loves most about acrobatics - aside from performing - is the feeling of getting something right.

"I might be practicing a move for hours a day for four or five months before I get it right once," she says. "And when I get it right, oh my god, it feels so good. It's what motivates you to keep training."

To contact Emma Phillips about sponsorship or performance opportunities, e-mail her at emmaflips@windowslive.com.

(Writtern by Julia Hollingsworth, and Yao Minji contributed to this story.)

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