My whole childhood was inundated with performance arts. When it came to dance, I had the full course of ballet, tap, and jazz. When I was seven-years-old, my mom added traditional Chinese dance to the mix of western disciplines. The transition wasn’t as hard as some would imagine. The key graceful controlled movements of Chinese dance echoed the composed forms found in ballet. But I didn’t learn the dances in a vacuum. I also grew up watching Chinese dances performances both on telecasts or live (thanks to my mom being a big fan of dance and for joining the local groups).
When I went to see the so-called Shen Yun “divine performing arts" show on December 26th, 2009 , I was wondering just how much of it would live up to its global hype. After all, I have not only watched other productions, I’ve walked the walk (or in this case, danced the dance) and I’ve grown up as a typical American-born Chinese. In order to balance out my own thoughts, I brought along my good friend Kelly. An averaging of our reactions would surely produce a thoughtful result since she is not submersed in dance culture and had never seen a Chinese performance in her life.
Shen Yun earns its self-proclaimed divine status in my eyes. My mind was not allowed a moment to wander as everyone in the production poured such amazing vibrant energy into their acts without reserve. The dancers may have just outshone their glitzy and bright costumes. I found myself awash with nostalgic memories of learning how to dance in the traditional Chinese ways and I felt joyous throughout the performance. I even laughed at the silly bilingual banter between the two hosts Kelly Wen and Jared Madsen as they introduced each unique act which varies from showy group numbers, to skits, and to dramatic tales of religious prosecution in China. They seem to flow one right into the other and they all come together into one rich and cohesive whole.
Kelly was really taken away by the use of props throughout the performance and for a good reason. No matter how simple the prop was, the performers knew how to hold the audience spellbound with them either through the visual effect of so many people using them in sync with the music or through the unique rhythmic sound the dancers created by clinking the plates together. If the Chinese are good at one thing, it’s finding different uses for even the tiniest thing (not to say that there aren’t really impressive Chinese props because there are! If you are going to see the show for the drums, you won't be disappointed).
I had the honor to speak with one of the choreographers – and principal performers - Michelle Ren after the performance and it was an absolute delight to thank her in person. Shen Yun conjures whole new routines for each tour and though I am certain that the well of creativity has yet to run dry, I am amazed by the constant innovation.
There is another key aspect to Shen Yun: its background. Not just its rich background in Chinese tradition upon which it is based, but its stage background. It becomes as much as a player in the acts as the performers themselves. In many other Chinese performances, the background comes off as an afterthought, used as yet another static element of color for the stage. Shen Yun uses the area to its advantage by using an enormous screen that can be changed according to the acts. Images of Chinese landscapes and cities give a new level of wonder to the already-lively show. When the background becomes interactive and animated, the audience can access a whole new dimension that no other Chinese dance performance can present.
But the dance isn’t the only thing to rave about. The music of Shen Yun – conducted by Ying Chen - is a powerful driving force to be reckoned with. The language of music is just as universal as the language of dance and is the perfect complement to the dances, giving them even more energy through the usage of both western and eastern instruments. There is a spirit in the live music that cannot be found in a mere recording. The music is not restricted to the orchestra pit and there are a few acts which focus on the instruments. The classical erhu - played by Xiaochun Qi - takes the spotlight, wowing the audience with its rich and mellow sound. The more operatic numbers are accompanied by a pianist, further fusing the image of east meets west in glorious harmony. The singers - Hong Ming, Pi-ju Huang, and Qu Yue - blew me away by the power of their song and echoed for some time to come (and I’m no stranger to opera either). For those who do not know Chinese, there is a translation for the lyrics strategically overhead on the backdrop which is constantly changing to invoke pure and peaceful images of China’s timeless landscapes.
All the elements that make Shen Yun glorious to watch cannot be taken in by an observer in individual chunks. As wonderful as the dancers are, or as awesome as the musicians are (or as impressive as the props and the background are), they are nothing without their supporting essential elements. Like an awesome stew. Together, they create one divine masterpiece for their audiences across the globe and transcend any culture or language. Shen Yun is like a great classic movie: great for all walks of life and enjoyable whether you’ve seen it once or a million times.
For those waiting to see the show in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or were on the fence about it, I hope you have a great cultural experience.
I also got interviewed by The Epoch Times during the VIP event after the show so if you know someone who prefers to read their reviews in Chinese, here you go: Article.
Shen Yun will be playing in Los Angeles from Feb 5 - 14, 2010
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
The Music Center
135 North Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90012