Shen Yun is a cultural arts trifecta.
“It’s like seeing a symphony, a theatrical production and a movie at the same time,” says David Zhnag, assistant director for the Chinese classical dance company, which stages three performances, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17 at the William Saroyan Theatre.
Each year, Shen Yun produces an all-new show and tour that travels to venues around the world.
While dance is at the core of the show, the dancers are accompanied by a full concert orchestra, playing compositions written specifically for the show. The music integrates both Eastern and Western instrumentation, Zhang says. So, audiences will hear the French horn and violin played side-by-side with the erhu (a sort of two-stringed violin) and pipa, or Chinese lute.
The performance happens in front of an animated backdrop two stories high and running the width of the stage. It takes three digital artists to create just one of the many images projected on the backdrop, Zhang says.
The result blurs the boundaries of the stage and transports the dancers to the far reaches of China’s geographic regions – and history. The audience feels immersed in the story.
Shen Yun is the collective story of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, told through a series of vignettes taken from traditional legends, fables and folk tales. There are the well-known stories — the Ballad of Mulan, for example, was popular enough for Disney – and more obscure and fantastical ones – the Monkey King sees a magical monkey, an ogre and a pig tasked with escorting a monk as he travels to modern day India.
“Every time I see that one, it puts me in a dream world,” Zhang says.
But the show is more than a visually stunning history lesson.
In today’s China a lot of this has been lost.
David Zhang, assistant director
The performance is also a means of cultural preservation, Zhang says. Shen Yun Performing Arts, which includes the orchestra and dance company, were created by classical Chinese artists in New York in 2006 to help revive the country’s cultural and artistic heritage, much of which was lost during the 60 years of cultural revolution that happened after Mao Zedong’s Communist regime took control in 1949.
The vibrant costumes are authentic re-creations of period styles, handmade in a painstaking process, Zhang says.
So too was the choreography.
While it shares some similarities with modern Chinese dance and acrobatics, Shen Yun is unlike most dance ensembles seen today, even those from China. There are no elements of modern dance or hip-hop here. This is the purest form of classic Chinese dance, Zhang says.
The performance is authentically Chinese, but it also transcends geographic boundaries, Zhang says.
Without knowing the language or the history, you will still understand the story – though there is an onstage emcee to introduce each vignette, he says.
“It’s kind of like a grand tour of China’s 5,000 year history of civilization.”
- 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17
- Saroyan Theatre, 730 M St.
- Tickets: $60-$150
- 559-445-8100, 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com