My experience of Shen Yun at Lincoln Center

This weekend I went to see Shen Yun at Lincoln Center. Shen Yun’s poster with dancers in traditional Chinese costumes flying through the air first caught my eye because, as my parents predicted that one day I will “return to my roots”, I’ve become more aware of Chinese cultural imagery around my surroundings. All I could gather from their web site was that it was a performance showcasing classical Chinese dance combined with traditional Chinese folklore and mythology. I was excited to see it since I’ve been entrenching myself in a lot of history that I’ve long forgotten from childhood to find inspiration.

The show as a little over two hours long with a ten minute intermission. The audience was a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese. The show started with a POW! When the curtain lifted the stage was covered with smoke that looked like clouds. Very dramatic! The dancers were amazing. Every girl was like a willowy twig – they must be like 90 pounds or something. Every male dancer looked like Takeshi Kaneshiro who I am a big fan of! He’s the epitome of exquisite! The costumes were inspiring. In particular the “Sleeves of Silk” segment was absolutely inspiring. Here’s a sample of what “sleeve dancing” looks like from House of Flying Daggers. I’m obviously NOT going to use music like that… that’s a bit too chinky chonky for my taste.
The long billowy sleeves are supposed to echo the graceful movement of the dancer long after she has moved on to the next movement. To me this is a visual haiku or like the lingering scent of someone after they have left the room or a fading memory. When I experience and feel transcended by art like this, it makes me appreciate my $40,000+ MFA degree from Columbia University. I am already thinking of ways to adapt the “sleeves of silk” to a burlesque act. It’ll be challenging but will be really beautiful.

If Shen Yun is a good representation of classical Chinese dance and historical costumes then female representation is on the VERY demure side. All the dancers wore floor length skirts and high necks and sleeves. I don’t think I saw one thigh or chest. Sex appeal there were none. Artistry yes. But then the show took an unexpected turn. Suddenly there was this heavy-handed spiritual preaching about the religious group Falun Dafa and how to achieve salvation and truth through the Dafa. On top of the terrible lyrical translation projected on the screen about this new religious movement in China (founded in 1992), there were quite a few skits reacting the persecution of Falun followers in China by the government – represented by dancers wearing all black with a bright red sickle and hammer emblem on their backs.

I don’t know anything about Falun Gong. The only encounter I’ve been exposed to were limited to these sort of scary demonstrations on the streets of Chinatown. I’ve seen people sitting cross-legged meditating on the sidewalk surrounded by blurry, blown up Xerox-ed photos of horribly injured and bruised people and Chinese text next to them about how Falun Gong is persecuted in China. I’ve seen them outside the Chinese Embassy in the Upper West Side. Wikipedia explains Falun Gong as:

Falun Gong (literally means “Law Wheel Practice”, alternatively Falun Dafa) is a spiritual discipline first introduced in China in 1992 by its founder, Li Hongzhi, through public lectures. It combines the practice of meditation and slow-moving qigong exercises with the moral philosophy.

There’s a lot of literature online weighing on Falun Gong. Wiki further adds:

Human Rights Watch notes that the crackdown on Falun Gong reflects historical efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to eradicate religion, which the government believes is inherently subversive.

So as you can imagine I was quite surprised that what I thought was going to be a theatrical afternoon watching a dance performance suddenly turned out to be a sort of a gospel preaching extoling the goodness of a religion. It reminded me of church!

I can’t take sides on this issue because I’m not knowledgeable enough. I could see why the Chinese government would want to suppress this popular religion because the government is essentially atheist. But then I can’t see why one can’t choose to practice morality and meditation if one wants to. Oh – snap, spoken like a true inhabitant of a democratic country. Silly me, how dare I think that an individual has a choice over one’s own beliefs in China?

Besides the religious preaching the performance was enjoyable and the visuals inspiring. I loved in particular the use of pastel and bright colors such as brown with electric blue, magenta and bright greens. I also discovered that Shen Yun was founded in NYC in 2006 and they have three worldwide troupes touring simultaneously throughout the US. The majority of the dancers in the troupe are ethnic Chinese raised in the West. I wonder what their stance is regarding Falun Gong…or if you have to be sympathizer to be in the troupe which got me thinking, who is the target audience of Shen Yun? Is it oversea Chinese immigrants like my parents or is it Caucasians who can further their cause? Very strange…What’s your experience if any?

Comments:

Jan 16, 2012 @ 03:58 pm Anonymous said:

When I was young, I asked my mother for dance classes. I was expecting jazz and tap, but was placed into a Chinese folk dance class instead. I was so disappointed and have since studied modern dance in college and at local dance schools as a hobby. However, today I am so grateful to have been part of Chinese folk dance. I loved the costumes, the makeup, hair (first experience getting styled), the paper umbrella and fan props… Going to Shen Yun and enjoying the first part of the performance and thinking: wow, I use to float around in a costume on stage like that. The Falun Gong at the end ruined it for me.
I saw Shen Yun a few years ago. I was expecting beautiful dancers and costumes. It was very good and entertaining in the beginning and middle of the show, but was jarred into seeing a display of religious freedom activism depicting disturbing treatment toward Falun Gong practitioners.
If this message was targeted toward me, it had only a negative effect. I was very put-off by this part of the performance. I think the delivery was too heavy handed and it caught me by surprise. Had I known this show was part religious (freedom) message, I would not have gone to see the show as a family event, and certainly would not have taken a guest for fun. I would have attended the event if I was a Falun Gong supporter, but honestly, have always been turned off by their public demonstrations which I find too heavy handed as well.
Also, during Christmas time, they had a free gift wrap table at the Union Square Barnes and Noble and when I saw the Shen Yun posters at the gift wrap table, I made a beeline for the exit. LOL.
I’m glad I had a chance to attend the show but would like to see more productions like Shen Yun without the propaganda.

Jan 16, 2012 @ 05:18 pm calamitychang said:

I totally agree with you, Anonymous! My sentiments exactly. I kept wondering what the non-Chinese people sitting next to me could possibly be thinking! I was flanked by kids about eight or ten years old on either side…If their “intention” is to convert me or to gain a sympathizer, it was not successful.
Jan 17, 2012 @ 01:48 pm Anonymous said:
I saw their performance in Dallas. I too was put-off by the blatant propaganda aspect of the show. Regardless of my personal view on Falun Gong, I just don’t like someone shoveling propaganda down my throat! Hidden messages in show like this; to me is akin to serving a vegetarian pita roll with a piece of pork hidden in it! Imagery of the savior deity in the show looked surprising like the founder of Falun Gong and that further alienated me. You can practice whatever you want, just not in my face!

Jan 17, 2012 @ 03:39 pm calamitychang said:
When the buddha imagery came on which I presume was the “DaFa” or the founder (I’m unclear), my Caucasian boyfriend said, “Hey, look its Chow Yun Fat!”

Original text from: http://www.asiancemagazine.com/2012/0

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