Arts & Culture

Dances, costumes convey a message in ‘Shen Yun’

The Shen Yun performing troupe comes to Wichita Tuesday and Wednesday. The dance is performed by more than 100 artists in colorful and exotic costumes.
The Shen Yun performing troupe comes to Wichita Tuesday and Wednesday. The dance is performed by more than 100 artists in colorful and exotic costumes.

From the moment the gong is struck to begin the show, you know you are in for a “magical experience,” say promoters for “Shen Yun,” a celebration of 5,000 years of Chinese music, dance and culture that comes to Century II for two performances May 3 and 4.

The Shen Yun orchestra blends the distinctive sounds of ancient Chinese instruments, like the soul-stirring erhu (two-stringed fiddle) and the delicate pipa (silk-stringed lute), with a full Western orchestra of strings, woodwinds, percussion and brass to create a new sound.

The dance, performed by more than 100 artists in colorful and exotic costumes, is based on grace and athleticism, involving leaps, turns, flips, spins and other aerial tumbling techniques perfected over thousands of years.

The exuberant, sometimes explosive dances tell such stories as a daughter disguising herself as a son to take her father’s place at war (shades of “Mulan”), a folk hero getting drunk and saving a village from a tiger, and a magical monkey and a pig protecting a Buddhist monk as he goes on a quest for true teachings. There is also one where Buddha asks the deities of heaven to come down to China and walk among the people to create a divinely inspired civilization.

The dances are performed in front of giant animated backdrops that re-create tropical lake-filled vistas, legendary cultural sites and heavenly landscapes.

But the magical experience, now in its 10th anniversary season of touring, also comes with political baggage. Shen Yun Performing Arts was founded in New York by practitioners of Falun Gong, the spiritual practice banned by the Chinese Communist Party in 1999.

The party has denounced Falun Gong as a cult, and on the website for the Chinese Embassy in the United States, a note says that Shen Yun is not a cultural performance at all but a political tool to raise funds for Falun Gong to spread anti-Chinese propaganda.

Falun Gong responds on its website: “For 5,000 years divine culture flourished in the land of China. Humanity’s treasure was nearly lost, but through breathtaking music and dance, Shen Yun is bringing back this glorious culture.”

In any case, most audiences either don’t know of the controversy or don’t care – particularly in America, where Shen Yun has grown over the past decade from one performing company to four, drawn from students at the Fie Tien Academy of the Arts in New York City. In 2016, the tours will reach 100 cities in 30 countries.

But not in China, where performances are banned.

Critics and audiences have been rapturous, from Broadway critic Richard Connema declaring “None can compare to what I saw tonight” to English National Ballet lead dancer Kenn Wells saying “Absolutely the No. 1 show in the world – no other company or any style can match this.” Oscar winner Cate Blanchett called the show “exquisitely beautiful,” and designer Donna Karan characterized it as “a mesmerizing performance reclaiming the divinely inspired cultural heritage of China.”

“The show is 5,000 years of culture in one night,” said Felipe Sena, creative director for a fragrance company, who caught a performance at Lincoln Center in New York in March. “The colors are amazing; the message is very lyrical and clear.”

While a couple of the dances deal directly with Falun Gong’s clash with the Chinese Communist Party, many people go to the performances unaware of the political undertones of the show. Nonetheless, the bright costumes and spinning dancers are meant to convey a message.

“The Falun Gong has a very well organized, managed and elaborate program of public relations, and Shen Yun is part of that,” said James Tong, a UCLA professor, expert in Chinese politics and author of a book about the Communist Party and Falun Gong. When audiences see Shen Yun, “people want to know more about the Falun Gong.”

Falun Gong was founded by spiritual leader Li Hongzhi in 1992. By the late 1990s, it claimed an estimated 70 million followers inside China. It emphasizes the traditions of Buddhism, meditation and tai chi, and at its inception it enjoyed a close relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.

But when the government began to crack down on groups promoting qigong, an ancient Chinese practice of holistic medicine that espouses breathing techniques to promote good health, the Falun Gong was among those targeted.

The group responded by staging brazen protests. At one point 20,000 followers surrounded party headquarters in Beijing. After that, the government deemed the practice of Falun Gong illegal. Practitioners have accused the government of persecution, repression and brutalization. Shen Yun represents an artistic response in this struggle.

“Traditional Chinese spiritual practice has been very demonized,” said Shen Yun promoter Wen Chen, who left China after college. “We were taught that Buddhism was stupid, so a lot of Chinese students came to the U.S. and realized they were brainwashed. In the United States they saw something authentic. They were able to read freely and speak freely, and they started to appreciate traditional Chinese practices and spiritual guidance.”

Chen acknowledged that most of Shen Yun’s audience members aren’t arriving for spiritual guidance. They simply delight in the dancers, singers and musicians as well as the myths and legends that are told through vigorously acrobatic dance routines.

But that, Chen said, doesn’t prevent the core message of “truthfulness, compassion and tolerance” from affecting the audience.

Contributing: Los Angeles Times

Shen Yun 2016

What: Celebration of more than 5,000 years of Chinese culture through classic music, explosive dance routines and spectacular costumes

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday

Tickets: $128, $108, $98, $88, $68; available through WichitaTix at www.wichitatix.com or 316-303-8100

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