Bringing Timeless Culture to Life
The Shen Yun Performing Arts Difference
By MENGSHENG GU
Though it may now be in its fourth year, Shen Yun Performing Arts continues to be a tale of firsts. The group – an unprecedented gathering of world-class dancers, choreographers, vocalists, and musicians – is again this year blazing new cultural trails with artistic flair.
The firsts begin with, as might a work of art itself, a vision. Shen Yun Performing Arts coalesced sometime mid-year in 2006 around a joint aspiration: to rekindle, and share with a broader audience, some of Chinese culture’s most exemplary features.
“We want to provide our audiences with an experience of consummate beauty and goodness,” says Tim Wu, one of Shen Yun’s principal dancers. “We want to bring out what is timeless and most precious from the culture.”
In that spirit, Shen Yun seeks to reach with its shows beyond merely entertaining, to exploring some of the deeper facets of our shared humanity. The performances not only thrill, but at once educate, enlighten, and inspire.
Dance and music, with their capacity to vividly tell a story, have proved the perfect medium. The New York-based group, which performed to audiences totaling over 800,000 last year, has been getting the highest of affirmations.
“During last year’s shows,” says Regina Dong, “when the music would quiet down you could actually here people sniffling, people in tears.” They were moved by the performances. “That’s unusual in the performing arts these days.”
Indeed, what might be called “the Shen Yun difference” is a larger belief that the performing arts can not only harness the cultural depth of the classical arts, finding in them a wellspring of meaning, but invigorate anew such legacies with the means of our day, including high-tech.
For one, a Shen Yun performance is an entrée into a timeless past. Many of its dances provide viewers with a portal to a rich panoply of traditional Chinese values, ideals, and hopes. Audiences can step into the last days of China’s imperial past, the Qing Dynasty, with the elegant ladies of the Manchurian court; save the country with General Yue Fei, the paragon of courage; or go herding freely on the Mongolian plains when not busy, that is, savoring spring’s fresh forsythia blossoms.
Each of these worlds is populated with the stories and feats of character that have made them the stuff of Chinese lore. Evoking them on the stage, and in terms understandable to the average American, however, has demanded feats of innovation.
One facet of this is the designing of highly-original cinematic backdrops, digitally designed specifically for these shows and meant to fully mine the artistic potential of emerging theatre technology. The backdrops range from placid pastoral scenes to stunningly animated Buddhist caves of Western China, and serve to heighten that additional notch the drama of the dance or song at hand.
The shows also have meant summoning new degrees of creative ferment on the costume front. A costume design team of some 50 persons labors painstakingly for months each year to create the visual feast of hues, both vibrant and subtle, that define Shen Yun’s adornment. All are original conceptions meant to match perfectly the tone and expression of each piece. At any given show you can expect everything from majestic imperial robes to solemn Buddhist garb.
“There’s hardly anyone who doesn’t say, ‘Wow – that was truly beautiful’ after the show,” says Ying Chen, an accomplished flutist who is now a conductor for one of Shen Yun’s orchestras. “We understand beauty to be both inner and outer, you have to have both, and that’s something unique about our arts. People can sense it.”
Indeed, three of the world’s four top-ranked classical Chinese dancers belong to Shen Yun, thanks, perhaps, in part to their unique training and approach. Shen Yun can claim “firsts” as well, then, in the standings.
Another innovation is the creation of the world’s only orchestra whose permanent members consist of players of both Chinese and Western instruments. Shen Yun’s orchestra, much like its dance, explores new artistic horizons in its fertile fusion of Chinese and European musical traditions. The two-stringed erhu complements the oboe as nowhere else for effects at times merry, haunting, and playful.
“The orchestra means that the ear is treated to the same kind of feast as the eye,” says Emily Kutolowski, the group’s principal oboist.
“Each year we have something new in store, and we like to keep it a surprise right up to opening night – there’s a suspense that builds,” says Rutang Chen, conductor for one of Shen Yun’s orchestras.
“That’s part of the sense of discovery the show creates,” adds Ying Chen. “It’s a continuous unfolding; there’s really a sense of awe and magic about it.”
This year there will again be surprises aplenty. Shen Yun’s shows will feature fully 20 new and original dances, accompanied by an equal number of original musical scores.
While Shen Yun’s shows are an enlightening window into China’s past, they also break ground by exploring some of the important contemporary issues that face the world, and especially China, today. Past years have touched on themes of justice, political expression, ethnic identity, and religious belief under communist rule given artistic treatment.
Indeed, many of Shen Yun’s artists have had to grapple with the steely realities of life under authoritarian rule in China; before coming to the West, some were themselves the victims of state deprivations of the arts, which have even, at several points, reached the extreme of official suppression.
“These are topics a lot of Chinese artists simply will not touch,” says pianist Peijong Hsieh. “That’s a shame, though, as it’s precisely the arts that are in position to explore such issues and give them the sophisticated treatment they deserve.”
Indeed, most Chinese artists fear repercussions from China’s communist Party-state should they probe the verities of contemporary Chinese social life. Often such inquiries reveal an unflattering picture of inequity and abuse.
“The Party is afraid of the arts, of their power,” says Mr. Chen. “And that’s why they try to control them. We’re doing just the opposite: we set them free. We let them be a force for good, or even change.”
“It’s the best of so many things – past and present, real and ideal, inner and outer, light and heavy, East and West. It’s hard not to be moved and inspired by the shows. We see it as a new tradition, a new heritage, that speaks to people across cultures and continents.”
This year Shen Yun Performing Arts will do its part to harness that potential in abundant ways, traveling to over 100 cities around the world.
To see if the shows are coming to your city, or to see about booking Shen Yun, you can learn more online at www.ShenYunPerformingArts.org.