Shen Yun, a performance troupe based in New York, aims to celebrate 5000 years of traditional Chinese culture through classical Chinese dance. Truly a treat for the eyes, this extraordinary troupe features technically flawless dancers perfectly matched in appearance and in synchrony of dance, formation team maneuvers, and acrobatic movement.
Imagine Chinese counterparts of the Rockettes or the “Lord of the Dance,” dressed in exquisite handcrafted costumes, set before fantastically inspired and colorful animated backdrops, and dancing to a full orchestra containing traditional Chinese as well as Western instruments, and you begin to get the idea.
“Flower Fairies,” “Lotus Leaves,” and “Snowflakes Welcoming Spring” were as evocative and graceful as their titles. Eye candy to be sure, as were the martial arts displays and tumbling skills of the athletic male dancers. Watching these often brought a smile to my face as I marveled at the lyricism, unity, joy, and even humor of the artists.
Yet there were some disappointments, due in part to our lack of research before attending and our erroneous expectations of what the performance would and would not involve. Having seen other Chinese troupes, we had looked forward to more daring acrobatic feats and technically challenging adagio partnership dancing. These were absent, and in their stead were vocally proficient singers whose delivery, text and melodies failed to captivate us.
The overuse of the animated screen to depict divine beings flying back and forth from the heavens to earth, and the trick of using a video clip of the performer who then magically landed in person on the stage, was clever and entertaining at first, but rapidly became repetitive, taking on a kitsch comic-book quality.
Perhaps least expected and most pervasive was the often heavy-handed intrusion of Falun Dafa religious creeds and political references to oppression by the atheist Communist Chinese government, which apparently was the impetus for the troupe originating in New York rather than in China. The Tampa performances were sponsored by the Falun Dafa Association of Florida, but none of the advertising or promotions we saw for this event referenced the religious or political overtones.
The message of Buddhist meditation and self-cultivation was reinforced by lyrics to the songs projected on the screen and by the narrators, a charming gentleman and lady who introduced each piece in Chinese as well as in English. In our opinion, their comments interrupted the flow of the evening and were not needed to explain the dances, as the printed program contained sufficient narrative descriptions.
Shen Yun is literally translated as: “The beauty of divine beings dancing.” The visual aspects were beautiful indeed, but divinity in dance may best be revealed by the Holy Spirit using the dancer as a vessel, rather than relying heavily on cinematographic gimmicks or ponderous verbiage.