Review: Shen Yun at Chrysler Hall, Norfolk

My first article for AltDaily (photos by Shen Yun Performing Arts):

Shen Yun translates to “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” Which is quite an appropriate name for this talented company.

When I saw that Shen Yun Performing Arts was coming to Norfolk, I thought to myself, “I have to see them!” The fact that I knew essentially nothing about the company didn’t hinder my enthusiasm in the slightest.

So, as I always do when I am introduced to something exciting, I hopped on the Internet to find out more. The traditional Chinese dance company, based in New York, was established in 2006, and has performed internationally (with their own orchestra) since 2007. The dancers come from all over the world, and many of them studied classical Chinese dance and music at the Fei Tian Academy of the Arts (whose curriculum appears to include ballet, which, as a ballet dancer myself, thrills me). Most striking, though, was to find out that in January, Shen Yun cancelled their seven sold out performances in Hong Kong. Seven of the production team members were refused entry visas; instead of hiring local replacements for the show’s run, Shen Yun elected to cancel their trip. I was impressed not only by the company’s apparent expertise, but also their solidarity and unity. As a result, I was even more fired up about seeing them perform.

As I took my seat in Chrysler Hall, I was practically bouncing with excitement. The house lights went down; the gong was struck, reverberating through the theater. I took a deep breath, and the curtain went up. And Shen Yun pulled, tossed, shocked, and twirled me through their program of twenty (yes, twenty) stirring pieces of dance, storytelling, and song.

The dancing …

… was impeccable; the strength and skill that each dancer possessed was extraordinary. The men performed acrobatics and turns; the women showcased their flexibility and control, as well as jumps and fluidity. The dancers’ stage presence, synchronized movements, and seamless transitions were astounding.

My definite favorite was the “Tibetan Dance of Praise.” The dancers stomped and bounced to the quick, almost tribal beat; they twisted, leaned, and turned, breezing through intricate formations. It took all the strength I had to stay in my seat and not climb up on the stage and join in.

The 17 men in “Lanterns” all held oversized yellow lanterns that formed patterns and spirals as the dancers moved and leaped.  Two of the dancers (after putting their lanterns down offstage, of course) performed soaring flips, multiple back handsprings, and other tumbling tricks.

“Elegant Embroidery” was a smooth and lyrical dance. The women moved silently in their slippered feet, taking small steps that rolled from heel to toe, creating the illusion of gliding. While holding embroidery hoops, the arm and hand gestures were precise, yet flowing and expressive.

The costumes …

… were vibrant, and saturated with color. Bright pinks, greens, yellows, and purples; there was color everywhere. In a few of the pieces, the costumes became part of the choreography. “In a Miao Village” had costumes of short, pleated dresses and elaborate necklaces adorned with bells. The movements of this folk dance were rapid, with swinging arms and hips to maintain a continuous sound of the jingling bells. In “Watersleeves,” the women wore tops with sleeves 7 or 8 feet longer than their arms so that the sleeves streamed through the air as they moved, and encircled them as they turned.

The set …

… consisted of a backdrop, and three steps that ran the width of the stage. For each piece, a landscape or animation was projected onto the screen to depict the location or help tell the story. The landscapes were vivid, and worked well with the choreography and costumes. I didn’t feel quite the same way about the animation, however. The animated characters moved across the backdrop, timed so that the actual dancers rose up from behind the stairs just as the animated characters disappeared from the screen. I definitely loved the idea, and it could have been truly awesome. In reality, however, the animation itself left something to be desired; it had the feel of a cartoon from the 80’s, and fell short of the quality shown in other aspects of the performance.

The stories …

… were a combination of several traditional legends, folk tales, and current events, and gave the dancers an opportunity to display their acting abilities. In the traditional and playful story of “Wu Song Battles the Tiger,” the local hunters are unable to kill a man-eating tiger that threatens their village. So Wu Song decides to go after the tiger himself. After consuming three bowls of wine (from the inn that has a sign saying “Three Bowls of Wine and You Have to Stay the Night”), he drunkenly dances through the woods in search of the tiger, while the villagers wait, shaking in intentionally exaggerated fear. Despite his intoxication, Wu Song is able to defeat the tiger, and the village celebrates. I especially loved how the music followed his woozy movements, sliding through notes and sliding off key as he swayed and stumbled around the stage. This piece was hilarious and fun, generating a lot of laughter.

In contrast, “Astonishing Conviction” was one of the two politically charged and surprisingly violent pieces in the show. Set in modern day, a young man stands in a public square in China holding a sign that states, “Falun Dafa is Good.” The young man is brutally attacked by the police, who drag him to prison, broken. Divine beings arrive, healing him and giving him such strength that the police are no longer able to harm him. The young man returns to find his sign, and holds it up once more. This piece was dark and powerful; the portrayal of the beating was tremendously realistic, and the choreography and the depth of character were superb. The audience (myself included) watched in stunned silence.

The Masters of Ceremonies …

… were a curious part of the performance. Between each piece in the program, Yang Song and Ben Freed came out on stage to chat with the audience.  She spoke mainly in Chinese, and he in English, but they did interact with each other in both languages. They provided useful information about the company and the performance, but their delivery was a cross between hosts of a pageant and hosts of a game show (which didn’t seem quite fitting for this). He also played the “funny man,” delivering quips with forced smiles and stiff gestures. Overall, his jokes (and even one Confucius quote) inspired only a few uncomfortable chuckles from the audience. I still am unsure as to why the MCs were given these characters. I would have enjoyed them much more (and the jokes may have been more successful) if the dialogue had been presented in a more natural, conversational way.

The four vocalists …

… sang beautifully, accompanied by piano. There were two sopranos and two tenors, whose songs of hope and spiritual salvation were interspersed between the dances. Soprano Haolan Geng was the last vocalist to perform. As soon as her first note sailed through the theater, I froze. She floated through the octaves effortlessly, and I had to remind myself to breathe. By the end of the song, I had tears streaming down my face. After the thunderous applause, Ben (the MC), immediately came on stage and said, “How about an encore?” which was the best line Ben delivered in the entire show. Because it meant I could hear her positively glorious voice one more time.

The packed Shen Yun program was so much more than a dance performance; it was an amazing adventure that went beyond entertainment, combining history and legend with incredible artistry.  Yes, the demeanor of the MCs was puzzling, and yes, the animation was at times disappointing. But the company’s incredible skill and heartfelt expressions were spectacular. The religious and political messages were unexpected; I could, however, appreciate the company’s desire to express these views as part of the many examples of the Chinese culture, traditions, and experiences.

As it says in the program, “Each year, Shen Yun Performing Arts takes audiences on a journey to realms of hope, wonder, and beauty. This is our lasting gift, our gift to the spirit of all of humanity.” And I am thankful for it.

This article was published on AltDaily in March of 2010.

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