This month, Shen Yun Performing Arts, the world’s premier classical Chinese dance and music companies, will return to Baltimore’s Lyric Theatre and Washington’s Kennedy Center with an all-new show for 2014.
Its appearance marks the eighth occasion for Washington, D.C., and the second time for Baltimore. That’s five shows, from Jan. 16-19, including two matinees for Baltimore, and seven shows, from Jan. 21-26, including two matinees for Washington. At Washington’s Kennedy Center Opera House, the venue regularly saw full houses for Shen Yun shows in recent years.
Shen Yun Performing Arts has become an international sensation, touring in over 130 cities. Based in New York, four touring companies perform simultaneously around the world. The New York Company will be performing here. Its upcoming performances will feature top artists, including Principal Dancer Rocky Liao (who calls Washington home), Shen Yun’s poster girl Angelia Wang, soprano Geng Haolan, and erhu virtuoso Qi Xiaochun.
Shen Yun employs the performing arts to bring to life the inner essence of China. It makes use of ancient legends and stories handed down from China’s 5,000 years of continuous culture, and draws on events from modern times.
Essence of the Divine
Why do people come back year after year? I don’t know if I can answer that question, but I think the answer must lie in one form or another that people see something that triggers a deep psychic reaction from the recesses of their soul, overwhelmed with a sense of perfection or beauty, and that they frequently end up crying.
Shen Yun means literally the beauty of divine beings dancing. That definition is an oversimplification, but you get the idea that the divine figures prominently in this artistic expression.
Ms. Robyn Ridgley, a writer, producer, and former Congressional executive said in Jan. 2012 after seeing Shen Yun in Los Angeles (it was not her first time), “I felt the angelic spirit come the moment the curtain opened and there was a light. And I felt it in everything, in the movement, and especially in the living dancers’ faces.”
Mr. Jim Crill, retired, was a producer and worked for several years with Bob Hope. He saw Shen Yun last April when it came to San Antonio. “The joy of humanity, the compassion of humanity, the concern, endurance, the power of selflessness flows through them,” he said. It was Mr. Crill second time. When he first saw Shen Yun the year before, he said it was most powerful thing he ever saw.
“It is the quintessential perfection of the human spirit, the talent, perfection, the eyes of [the dancers] all so unified, the perfection of the fingers was flawless like no one can do without the spirit of God in them.” He declared he was astounded.
You can understand from Ms. Ridgley and Mr. Crill reactions why a show like Shen Yun cannot be seen in communist China today. Under communist rule since 1949, the Party culture with its ideology of ‘struggle’ has supplanted China’s traditional culture based on three great religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The greatest harm came during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, when anything from China’s heritage was brutally mocked and eliminated.
In Shen Yun performances, themes like spiritual devotion, loyalty, steadfastness, filial piety, veneration for the divine, good and evil, retribution, and the search for the meaning of life appear in dance stories and song lyrics. The social cohesion that holds society together are in weakened state in China today as these virtues are not taught to the young or practiced as they once were.
The appeal of Shen Yun cannot be reduced to one word, such as divine, perfection, and exquisite, although these words are most often mentioned. Shen Yun simply appeals to people who appreciate beauty, Chinese culture, and some good stories. A big part of the audience are the children, who have their favorites, such as the Monkey King. A young girl or boy may become inspired to become a dancer, for example, by watching the performance. These days, there aren’t many entertainment shows that are suitable for all ages.
The miracle of the divine comes about through all the various facets that make up the show: hand-made costumes, East-West orchestra, dancers, instrumental soloists, computer-animated backdrops, and powerful vocalists.
It all comes together in a seamless fashion. Richard Walter, Chair of UCLA’s screenwriting program, who saw Shen Yun in Los Angeles one year ago, put it well: “It is a beautiful ensemble—many different kinds of crafts and arts, and yet it all works together as a single unified enterprise. The whole production is very unique. I’ve never seen anything like it, the way it integrates the film and the music and the dance—gorgeous.”
Costumes, Orchestra, and Dancers
Consider three elements that help make up this remarkable “ensemble”: costumes, orchestra, and dancers.
Costume designer Michel Jolicoeur saw 2014 Shen Yun in Montreal this past week. He owns the largest costume shop in the Laurentides region of Quebec. Understandably, he focused more than most viewers on the handmade costumes. “I’m having difficulty following the dances because the details of the costumes are marvelous,” Mr. Jolicoeur said.
The former president and CEO of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association, Ann Koonsman, gave special attention to the Shen Yun orchestra. She saw Shen Yun Performing Arts on Monday, Jan. 5, at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. As head of the orchestra since 1980, Mrs. Koonsman, who retired in 2011, spent many years leading the expansion of the Fort Worth Symphony. So of course, she remarked on the orchestra that blends the Western symphony orchestra with traditional Chinese instruments, like the pipa and erhu. The pipa, the “Chinese lute,” and the erhu, the “Chinese violin,” have histories of nearly 2,000 and 4,000 years, respectively.
“I think the music’s very serene. It’s just relaxing to me to sit and listen to it,” she said.
Dancers Hannah Setu and daughter Rosanna Setu also attended on Sunday the Fort Worth Shen Yun performance, and naturally they were especially attentive to classical Chinese dance. Mrs. Setu has over 30 years of dance experience, while her daughter has won many awards locally. They have studied many Asian ethnic dances and Ms. Setu performs Middle Eastern dancing. Ms. Setu recognized the classical forms, having studied ballet, but saw classical Chinese dance as something special.
“They just have something extra, something deep inside them that their background, their culture, everything that China is—they brought it out in their dance,” Ms. Setu said. “You can’t compare it to anything, it was just so beautiful and incredible.”
New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts has four touring companies that perform simultaneously around the world. For more information, visit Shen Yun Performing Arts.
The Epoch Times considers Shen Yun Performing Arts the significant cultural event of our time. We have proudly covered audience reactions since Shen Yun’s inception in 2006.