Visiting Troupe Brings Chinese Culture to LA Kids

Locals return favor by putting on their own show and sharing pizza

By the second time the young show host from China introduced an act with the words, "Please appreciate," the yard full of grade school kids sitting crisscross applesauce knew they were about to witness another extraordinary performance.

If it's Wednesday, this must be Marquez Charter Elementary in Pacific Palisades, and at this latest venue, the touring Tianjin Cathay Future Children's Art Troupe of China was delighting a new audience with music, dance and acrobatics.

The 27 members of the Troupe, average age 10, staged elaborate production numbers, duets and solos. They played uniquely Chinese instruments, including a horizontal harp that looks like a pedal steel guitar (except it's plucked), and a two-stringed violin, held vertically, that enthralled the young audience with its lyrical sound. Between her two solos, the acrobatic musician stopped for a back bend into a walkover handstand.

Jaws dropped.

Even more popular were the pair of young ballroom dancers doing a hot cha cha, and proving that not even Tianjin is immune to the influence of "Dancing with the Stars."

"This is great," exclaimed  a chorus of fifth graders.

"We want to unify the world through unifying children," said Katya Bozzi, Executive Director of the STAR Education Program, which teamed with the Confucius Institute of UCLA to host the student exchange.

The troupe has traveled all over the world. This two week tour--their tenth to the USA-- stopped first at the University of Utah. They then traveled to the Southland, where besides Marquez, they've performed at the University of Southern California, the Watts Learning Center and the St. Martin of Tours School, finishing up with a show at the STAR Prep Academy in Culver City. Next is Redlands, and then Vancouver, BC, last stop before returning home.

The performers are all-stars from the thousands enrolled in the children's performing arts program in Tianjin. It is financially supported by the Chinese Ministry of Culture, according to Zhao Qian, Troupe Director. Unlike some of the intensive youth acrobatic and gymnastics programs in China, Tianjin Cathay is not a full time boarding school. Rather, NBC Los Angeles was told the students train half-day, once a week on Sundays. Zhao is proud that the cost to the students' families is only $5/month.

At Marquez Charter Elementary, turnabout was fair play, and before the visitors performed, they were invited to be the audience for a song and dance performance by the Marquez fifth graders. Marquez Charter is renowned for helping its fifth graders learn U.S. history by performing in musical productions written by teacher Jeff Lantos. The Marquez students reprised numbers from their recent show, "Miracle in Philadelphia," about the 1787 convention that created the U.S. Constitution. The Marquez students also gave previews of songs from their upcoming production about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, "Hello Louisiana," still in rehearsal.

"I think they liked it," said Lantos. He noted that the Chinese students were multi-tasking -- while being the audience, they were also putting on their makeup for their performance. "It's pretty elaborate," Lantos observed.

(Potential conflict of interest disclosure: Author Campbell L. Healy is a Lantos student.)

After the Tianjin Troupers put on their show, they were invited to join the fifth graders for a pizza lunch. They ate heartily, though one of their chaperones noted they were still looking forward to finishing their meal with some rice.

During their visit,  troupe members have been staying with host families. As part of the cultural exchange, the Tianjin visitors also made a field trip to the Santa Monica Pier and explored the Heal the Bay Aquarium. Of course, Disneyland is also on the schedule.

When it came time for the Marquez students to say goodbye, they had just gained reason to hope they will again be able to see their new friends. Director Zhao had invited the fifth-graders to come visit them in Tianjin.

Now to find a way to pay for the trip...

Mom! Dad! Can we go to China?

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