I’m still processing Tuesday’s opening of Shen Yun, the Chinese cultural show that opened for a two-performance run at the Saroyan Theatre. It is a beautiful and odd production that veers wildly between two extremes: delicate artistic excellence on one hand and a brusque, heavy-handed effort to inculcate political and spiritual viewpoints on the other.
I still can’t decide if I was mesmerized or perturbed. Probably a little of both.
At the same time, the production – which is the most heavily marketed of the year, and also the most expensive (top ticket price is $150, which I feel is overpriced for this market and the overall scope of the production) – did get its two most important points across to me. It made me more greatly appreciate the artistry of Chinese classical dance; and it increased my awareness of the Falun Gong movement (also known as Falun Dafa) and the way it has been repressed by China’s Communist government. In that regard, I suspect the event’s promoters would consider it a success.
This was my first time to see a production of Shen Yun, which boasts five companies touring the world and all-new shows each year. (A different version played at the Saroyan in January.) There’s a bit of a variety-show feel: Along with a bevy of young, superbly trained dancers, there is a full orchestra, several operatic solos and a demonstration of the erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument. Two cheerful masters of ceremony keep things moving along.
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First, the dancing: It’s exquisite.
My best description is to invoke a metaphor. Picture a serene lake with water so still it’s like glass. A pond skater – one of those insects so delicate it can walk on water – moves gracefully across, never breaking the surface tension. The effect is one of an almost infinite lightness. It’s as if you’re watching a creature walking on air.
Add to that a Rockettes-style degree of precision that is almost spookily perfect. Every arm extends to the same exact position; every leg kicks at the same angle; every jump seems to reach precisely the same number of inches off the ground. Even the pleats in the vibrant costumes seem to line up perfectly.
That image came to mind while watching much of the classical dancing in the show. The fluidity of the movements, set by a number of credited choreographers, is exceptional. It’s as if we’re watching dancers so connected they’re part of a single organism.
Add to that a Rockettes-style degree of precision that is almost spookily perfect. Every arm extends to the same exact position; every leg kicks at the same angle; every jump seems to reach precisely the same number of inches off the ground. Even the pleats in the vibrant costumes, a rush of candyish pastel colors, seem to line up perfectly.
This gasp-worthy synchronicity is particularly effective in the first act, when it’s still fresh and novel. In such numbers as “Han Dynasty Sleeves” (with the silky fabrics forming spirals) and “Red Cliff” (Chiang Kai-shek communing with warriors from the past), the coordination between the dancers is palpable.
The second act adds some interesting variations, including a number titled “Mongolian Bowls” (balanced on heads, of course) and the beautiful “Yellow Blossoms,” with dancers using ruffled fans to create a flower effect.
Yet in slight but insistent ways, the show starts to wear out its welcome. I feel there is an almost robotic predictability to the choreography that diminishes the visual and emotional impact after a while.
Adding to that lack of variety is the exclusive scenic use of a digital background in which performers appear to move from stage to screen and vice versa. (The company is so proud of it that it includes a full-page patent announcement in the program.) The digital animation is impressive, but the heavily saturated images, which have a video-game feel, tend to give a sameness to the visual palette. I also was distracted by the shadows cast by the performers (and the shadows cast on them) when they are close to the digital screen, and the blackouts in some multi-scene numbers feel clunky.
Some of the interludes with the two M.C.s felt stilted, too, with tepid jokes falling flat.
Now we move on to the political and spiritual components of the show.
“Shen Yun” doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to making its case against the Chinese government. In the first act, “A Child’s Choice” offers a poignant scene of people practicing the slow-movement meditation of Falun Dafa when Chinese authorities show up to brutalize them. A mother is separated from her child, to tragic effect. Storm clouds appear. The stage darkens.
In the next number, “Why We Convey the Truth,” baritone singer Qu Yue offers an explanation for why we’re watching this show: “In order to save as many lives as possible, we brave persecution to convey the truth.”
The second act concludes with more communist violence on stage and a more overt spiritual message (“Yet many have forgotten to seek the precious book / Dafa, the Great Way that saves, is being taught / Heaven’s gates shan’t be open forever,” soprano Haolan Geng sings.)
Spoiler alert: The narrative includes what appears to be a nuclear mushroom cloud and the digital arrival of an enlightened figure, to whom the dancers show reverence, each one offering upraised palms together.
So, um, I don’t know what that last bit was all about. But I do know I was unprepared for how emphatic the message of “Shen Yun” turned out to be.
The intertwining of art and politics is nothing new, of course, and neither is mixing art and religion. Just a few weeks ago I attended a performance by the Fresno Community Chorus Coro Piccolo singing the Saint-Saëns Oratorio de Noël. I thought it was exquisite. And you can’t get more specifically spiritual than that with a piece relating the birth of Christ.
Part of my discomfort with the overt messaging in “Shen Yun,” then, could be due to cultural factors. I’m so used to Christianity being part of Western art that I’ve lost my sensitivity.
But you can make the argument that when you walk into the Saint-Saens piece, you know exactly what you’re getting: a Christmas oratorio. In my opinion, “Shen Yun” doesn’t make clear in its marketing materials and advertising just how much a part of the show its political and spiritual messages are.
Then again, you might be receptive to those messages. (And that’s fine.) Or just interested in the beautiful dancing.
Which I really enjoyed (and is most of the show), after all. I’m still marveling at the dance with the gorgeous yellow flowers.
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
- Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.
- www.shenyunperformingarts.org, 888-633-6999