ORLANDO — Watching the performance of Shen Yun Performing Arts over this past weekend, it might initially seem like a straightforward celebration of Chinese dance and music.
In fact, it really represents something else as well: a history lesson, in a sense, even a history book on ancient Chinese culture. As the Shen Yun team notes in the program book, “Shen Yun’s productions draw their inspiration from China’s 5,000 years of civilization. Values such as compassion and loyalty, kindness and bravery lie at the heart of traditional Chinese culture.”
They added, “We believe this rich heritage is a precious gift worth keeping, and worth sharing with you.”
In a sense, watching a Shen Yun performance — the troupe just performed three shows at the Bob Carr Theater in Orlando — is also a political act. There were no political speeches given during the show, which focuses on the remarkable skills of a group of very talented dancers, mimes and singers — and no written political messages distributed to the audience.
But make no mistake about it, this is in many ways a celebration of free speech over political oppression. Because as the Shen Yun performers noted, this is a show that Americans have the luxury to watch and enjoy. The same production could not be performed, ironically enough, in China itself.
Calling the performance a “gift from the divine land,” the production notes that “China was once known as the Celestial Empire, its glorious culture said to have been brought down from the heavens. But under the last 60 years of communist rule, this ancient culture has been almost completely destroyed. That is why you cannot see a performance like Shen Yun in China today.”
Traditional Chinese culture, the production notes, “has been nearly lost.”
Which is why the efforts of Shen Yun Performing Arts to keep it alive should be applauded, and joyously celebrated.
Since 2006, Shen Yun Performing Arts has touring the country to introduce ancient Chinese culture to Americans. It was formed by a group of classical Chinese artists based in New York City to do just that.
Using a full orchestra, the performers reenacted traditional Chinese dance stories, such as “Monkey King and the Skelton,” based on the novel “Journey to the West,” which tells the legend of a Tang Dynasty monk who sets out to find Buddhist scriptures, and is protected along the way by the golden Monkey King, the lazy Pigsy, and the river ogre Sandy.
Soprano Min Jiang performed “For You I Sing,” and there were ethnic dances like “Snow-Capped Celebration” — set atop the Himalayas, where Tibetan men dance to a joyful song — and “In The Village of the Hmong,” where a group of young women in long white skirts explore the fields of southern China.
The performances combine humor, suspense, dramatic situations, and wild fantasy — a uniquely diverse mix that is often times visually stunning. The costumes, special effects and video images projected onto the screen behind the stage all add to a superb evening of entertainment.
In the beginning, Shen Yun productions used music only to accompany the dance. Starting in 2012, though, the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra — which has more than 90 musicians — made their debut at Carnegie Hall, then joined the production company on tour in 2013 and 2014. In fact, Shen Yun is now looking to fill full-time positions as the organization continues to grow. Available positions include members of the string section (violin, viola, cello, double bass, and harp), woodwinds section (oboe, flute, bassoon), Brass section (French horn, trumpet, trombone, bass trombone) and Chinese instruments including Pipa, erhu and suona. To learn more, email Auditions@ShenYunPerformingArts.org.
“Classical Chinese Dance is one way in which 5,000 years of Chinese culture have been passed down and retained,” the production company notes in the program book. “In the early days, it was conveyed primarily among the common people, in the imperial courts, and through ancient plays.”
In fact, let me say this: if you think traditional dance and music that dates back thousands of years sounds stuffy and boring, you have no clue how much great artistry you’re missing. If you think singers and dancers from a different nation and culture can’t compare to what’s on MTV these days, you’re denying yourself the pleasure of seeing truly brilliant performers at work.
Those who cherish peace and freedom in a world that has gotten horrifically violent and terrifying in recent years should also keep in mind that they can enjoy this talent while at the same time helping to promote those very values — by rewarding this production company and helping to keep it alive — and thriving.
Shen Yun Performing Arts will be sticking around in Florida through April. They will perform at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Center in Fort Myers on March 30-31, the Mahaffey Theater at the Duke Energy Center for the Arts in St. Petersburg on April 3-4, and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami on April 7-8. Catching any of these performances would be a great day trip.
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