Art as Cultural Revival: Shen Yun in New York

Cover image: New York Times 

Edited by Morgan Moore

This past Sunday, I had the privilege of seeing Shen Yun at Lincoln Center in New York City. Literally meaning “the beauty of heavenly beings dancing,” Shen Yun is a performing arts organization that tours around the world (you can usually catch it in northeast America between January and April). The organization utilizes Classical Chinese dances in each of its unique performances; this dance form has been compared to ballet in terms of its rich and nuanced history, its aesthetic qualities, and the discipline it entails, yet the two are very different.

Shen Yun has received numerous accolades from multiple figures in the arts, has even been called “the eighth wonder of the world” by Joe Heard, a former White House photographer, and enjoys a plethora of publicity, with many people returning time and again. When I myself looked for tickets weeks in advance, most of the showings had already been sold out, and at the performance I attended, the theater was completely packed.

What makes Shen Yun so special? The arts and culture that the company seeks to keep alive were almost obliterated due to the Chinese Cultural Revolution spanning from 1966 to 1976, which sought to get rid of old artifacts and traditions. Fortunately, in 2006, a group of Chinese choreographers founded Shen Yun and revived dances and customs that were on the brink of extinction, even though the group is still banned from performing in China. Shen Yun exposes audience members to thousands of years of dance and culture that might otherwise have been lost forever.

The two-hour performance was comprised of short vignettes, each telling a different story about various cultural groups, classes, and time periods in China, ranging from ancient times to the present day. The audience seemed equally captivated by the radiance of each scene. To situate audience members, there was a pause between each dance, in which two announcers explained, in both English and Chinese, the significance of the next scene and what exactly was to come.

Dancers
Costumes used in the “Long Sleeves Dance.” Image per https://www.thecultureconcept.com/shen-yun-the-divine-land-5000-years-of-cultural-heritage.

Costumes were used expertly to tell each individual story and reflect the culture they represented. For example, in one scene, women wore vibrant pink costumes with elongated sleeves (which have been described in poetry of the time) as they performed the “Long Sleeves Dance,” a traditional dance representing the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The performers employed long, flowing movements as they danced, with their sleeves echoing these motions and creating an almost ethereal effect. The costumes seemed to elongate their bodies, making them appear elegant and beautiful, which were goals of the dance.

Follow this link for a video illustrating the “Long Sleeves Dance.”

Furthermore, in a section depicting the Hmong people (a culture that lives in China’s central and southwestern regions), dancers wore bells on their heads and costumes. To the Hmong, these costumes function as a display of wealth, a means of deflecting evil, and a way to show vivacity. As the dancers performed the routine, they produced a happy and lively aura as the movement of the bells created a percussive beat. This usage of bells created another dimension to the dance, expertly combining visual and aural components and making the dance captivating to watch.

The stage backdrop served as another dimension that made the performance captivating. The background is a 2016 patent invented specifically for the show by D.F., Shen Yun’s Artistic Director. It transcended the stage’s boundaries and seamlessly created set changes, making it seem like characters were walking in and out of it. A scene in which the background was particularly effective was “Archery in Another Dimension.” In this vignette, three archers try their hand at shooting targets; two have clearly mastered the craft, while one hopelessly shoots at a tree in the distance. Embarrassed by his peers’ ridicule and by his own failure (as archery is extremely important, comprising one of the Six Arts, or one of the core tenets of education in ancient China), he relentlessly pursues a deer and ends up falling off a cliff as a result. However, our hero does not die – he takes a trip to a seemingly parallel universe (perhaps Heaven), perfects the craft somewhat quickly with the help of those he meets on this trip, and subsequently reunites with his friends, leaving them dumbfounded as he shoots perfectly at all three targets.

The backdrop made the stunning execution of this story possible – in order to follow the deer (which was part of the background projection), the performer moved closer to the backdrop, jumped into a concealed part of the stage, and then appeared in the background as an animation. Also as part of this animation, the archer fell off the cliff and entered the alternate dimension; after this scene change took place, he “exited” the backdrop and reappeared on the stage, as if to look like he had traveled from the original scene to the parallel universe. When he went to reunite with his fellow archers, he “re-entered” the background, traveled back to the original scene, and reappeared on the stage. This usage of the backdrop was incredibly innovative, making the set changes seamless and the storytelling captivating and interactive.

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Image per https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/inside-shen-yuns-delicate-dance-between-politics-and-thestage/article34201842/.

Precise and striking choreography also made Shen Yun an incredible experience. Each dance was completely synchronized; it was clear from the dancers’ precision that no detail was left unattended. Additionally, some choreography included advanced moves like flips and splits, which added to the excitement of the dances. One scene I enjoyed in particular was called “Buffoonery in the Schoolyard,” because the choreography was especially skilled, the dancers executed it flawlessly, and each detail of the vignette contributed to the same larger theme. The dance expertly juxtaposed the rigidity of school with perhaps what one does to relieve the stresses of studying. In one section, schoolboys sat uniformly across the stage, reading books under their teacher’s watchful eye, and in another, they pranced around with boundless energy. In this latter scene, the dancers utilized vivid facial expressions and complex moves like aerial splits and flips, sometimes multiple times in a row, demonstrating their skill while also contributing to the chaotic and comedic nature of the dance. In this scene, the universal theme of the class clown truly came to life.

Shen Yun is truly a unique and spectacular experience. I enjoyed learning more about traditional Chinese culture while beholding the graceful dances, vibrant costumes, and innovative set design. I felt that the production succeeded at celebrating older traditions while skillfully incorporating modern technology to make the stories blossom on stage. All in all, it was a privilege for me to be able to experience this beautiful revival of culture and traditions that were lost for so many years.

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