Shen Yun is a show of traditional Chinese dance interspersed with some theological hymns. It was established in New York not long ago, in 2006, and it is the artistic expression of the Falun Dafa theological movement. It has expanded from the original company to three. They change programme each year and they have already visited us, although I didn´t see them at the time. Now they are offering an ample series of performances at the Opera City. Shen= divine, divinity. Yun= dancer´s bearing, style and movement significance.
I am of two minds about the results. They offer a big, luxurious, technologically advanced spectacle, and the dancers are admirable, both women and men. The ladies are refined, beautiful, of similar physiques, elegant, and they handle with admirable ease draperies, parasols, pieces of cloth, in fast, seemingless effortless movements. The men are incredibly agile, as much acrobats as dancers, and have assimilated diverse age-old theatrical routines. Another definite plus is the quality of design and realisation of the variegated costumes, in exquisitely harmonised hues. And the projection technology is amazing, for they have managed to produce uncanny effects of celestial beings that come at high speeds from the screen and suddenly materialize as dancers on the stage, aided by three steps at the back of the stage that permit their concealment. The marvelous landscapes of China form a lovely backdrop for most tableaux.
They are not attempting pure historicism; rather, they are keeping the essentials of long centuries of tradition in which an unbroken succession of masters -and disciples that gradually become masters- bring to us old tribal dances or evocations of legends from different dynasties, plus some pieces inspired by their particular beliefs. The glossy hand programme has bilingual Chinese/Spanish details of each tableau plus some generalisations about Falun Dafa. For me it seems an extremely simplistic "theology"; basic ideas: we come from Heaven and people are benevolent and peaceful. But in two danced tableaux and one hymn they present the current Chinese Government as viciously cruel against the Falun, even with women that are meditating in Tiananmen. I do know that they are persecuted for they are perceived as enemies of the state. But I can vouchsafe that in my Chinese visit of May 2012 I visited the monastery of Labrang, where a vast monastic Buddhist city is being financed by the civilian city, and I also saw a splendid active mosque. So freedom of cult is nowadays a far cry from the horrible situation at the time of the Cultural Revolution, a misnomer if there ever was one. The Tibetan situation (that has nothing to do with Falun) is political rather than religious; if they keep their secessionist aspirations in check, the Tibetans aren´t attacked for their cult.
As for the music, it is credited to current Chinese composers and orchestrated for a mixed ensemble of Occidental and Oriental instruments led by the Oxford-born Antonia Joy-Wilson. It sounds mildly Chinese and agreeable, and the players are excellent. The hymns seemed to me very poor in their texts and music, and of the four vocal soloists (with piano accompaniment) only the most veteran passed muster. Everything is amplified with good quality.
First Part. I will mention those tableaux that I preferred. Two concern the Tang Dynasty (618-907): "The Battle Formation" and the humoristic "Thirteen monks protect Emperor Tang". The "Bai Ethnic Dance" was charmingly done by the girls. It is a minority group of the extreme South, close to Myanmar. The Mongol bowl dance shows equilibrium and grace.
Second Part. The monk Sha receives wisdom: a funny story involving an ogre who becomes a monk, a Monkey King, a man-pig and celestial kids, plus a flowing river and an immense fish that swallows people; one flaw: the lack of characteristic masks. Dance of the divine phoenixes, with a beautiful display of fluttering drapes. The Imperial countenance of the Great Han Dynasty (206 b.C.- 220 a.C.) was an impressive display. The Dance of the Yi people (Southwest Yunnan) in honor of the divinities takes advantage of the five-colored costumes. The promenade of Emperor Tang Xuanzong on the Moon Palace: feathery rainbow-hued costumes are worn by the ladies in this poetic dance. Spring comes early: in a luminous dance among cherry trees in bloom, the girls handle their kerchiefs with consumate skill.
Forget the proselytism and enjoy the rest of the show! It may be less authentic than Beijing Opera but it is easy on the ears and the eyes and quite beautiful, even if occasional touches of kitsch seep in.