REVIEW: “Shen Yun” — Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Updated: Jan 8

Reclaiming a Lost Heritage

For many Americans, the words “Shen Yun” conjures an indelible yet incomprehensible image: a flat, bright shade of lilac, a woman leaping in the sky with a fan-shaped white skirt and billowing pink sleeves, and the enigmatic phrase "5000 Years of Civilization Reborn." "Shen Yun" has lived in that pink fluffy insulation of my mind for a while now. I sat in the magnificent Segerstrom Hall reading, but in no way processing the phrase "absolutely the No. 1 show in the world." Maybe my brain had simply glitched and invented “Shen Yun” the way John Nash invented his roommate in "A Beautiful Mind."

“Is it like Cirque du Soleil?” I asked, furiously Googling “Shen Yun” on my phone, something that had never occurred to me to do before. Why would I look up a figment of my own imagination? I was seeing a lot of search results that involved the word “cult.” I clicked on one link, and then closed it, realizing that I did not want to spoil what lay ahead of me—a journey into the fantastic unknown.

As people continued to file in, I took the 20 minutes before showtime to read the program. Here came the first mention of Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong, in small print: "Shen Yun 2021 is presented to you by San Diego Falun Dafa Association." D.F., Artistic Director, Costume Designer and founder. Five other choreographers: Gu Yuan, Gu Yan, Yungchia Chen, Michelle Ren and Gu Xuan. Composers are Junyi Tan and Jing Xian, and the Conductor is Dmitry Russu. Also in the program was something I've never seen in a playbill before: a full-page patent announcement for the stage's realistic 3D digital projection backdrop.

The show began with the sound of a gong, as the curtain rose on a four-foot cloud of dry ice that slowly dispersed to reveal a cluster of dancers in brightly colored, flowing costumes, moving in perfect time. The image behind the dancers was most dazzling. As the number went on, I wondered what part of the background exactly was patented. Then what looked like a spiritual figure appeared on screen (you know, an old man with a white beard, floating in the sky). The figure said something, and we were immediately transported into space.

What followed that over the next two hours was a parade of unconnected Chinese dances that jumped from region to region and story to story. The female dancers moved in hypnotic swirls; the male dancers jumped and flipped. There were vignettes from the classic folk tale about the Monkey King and dances from Mongolia and Tibet, all performed with impressive athleticism and precision.

The enormous screen (the only set on stage) behind the stage upon which digital images appeared—ancient temples, royal gardens, monks, the cosmos—along with digital dancers who would walk to the bottom of the screen and then pop out, via the appearance of a living dancer, seemed to be a vital part of the program. The colors displayed on the screen were near-neon and a bit unnatural, however; they reminded me of the glowing hues of perhaps some tabletop bar game at a restaurant.

Between each dance, two Masters of Ceremony emerged from house left to perform some stilted patter – a strong-jawed Caucasian man in a crisp suit traded scripted jibes in impressive Mandarin with a pretty Chinese woman in a dark, silk dress. And, at the end of each act, the MCs took to the stage once again to announce yet another routine.

Things were explained in detail to the audience, like, “China has a long history of spirituality, but in China today you can be arrested or even killed just for meditating.” (At this point, I had given up on my desire to find an overarching plot, and I was far more concerned now about falling asleep than about being brainwashed.)