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.)
The dance scenes were, admittedly, beautiful. If you squinted, you could not tell one dancer from the other. They were almost identical. One of those dance scenes involved a group of young students sitting in peace, meditating and reading oversized yellow Falun Gong books.
The dancers performed almost like a ballet, performing elaborately pantomimed good deeds – helping an old woman with a cane, for instance, or chasing down a woman who had dropped her purse. But when one unveiled a Falun Gong banner, suddenly a trio of men wearing black tunics emblazoned with a red hammer-and-sickle entered. Then, the communist thugs began beating people up, clubbing and kicking all of the Falun Gong followers.
In another melee, an attacker twists his ankle and falls to the ground. A Falun Gong practitioner tries to help his injured foe, while the villain continues raining down blows. In the piece’s climax, the communist lifts his fist and lets it hover in the air, trembling. Then, in a moment of tension that reminded me, more than anything, of the moment when Keanu Reeves cannot bring himself to kill Patrick Swayze in the third act of Point Break – slowly drops it, too moved by the young man’s compassion to continue.
During one mind-troubling segment, the hosts start talking about the spiritual discipline, Falun Dafa, and then introduces a story of a father throwing a birthday party for his daughter, giving her a beautiful luxury purse. The father, a surgeon, is called back to work at a hospital run by communists. The birthday girl also gets a golden book from her best friend about Falun Dafa, and they head to the park on a bright sunny day to meditate. Suddenly, security agents haul them away, and the fate of father and daughter is set on a collision course when birthday girl becomes a source of organ harvesting, performed unknowingly by the father.
“I’m hallucinating,” I whisper to my wife in the dark.
Now might be a good time for some context. Falun Dafa/Falun Gong started as a form of exercise in 1992. Followers gathered in public spaces to do qigong, which combines slow movements and meditation, very similar to Tai Chi. Falun Gong combined that with spirituality and Taoist teachings, and it became a following, threatening the Chinese Communist Party by its size and popularity. Thousands were imprisioned or tortured.
Today, the practice is still banned in China and the Chinese embassy's website condemns "Shen Yun" performances calling it a "cult that violates human rights, and a cancer in modern and civilized society." So yeah, the story is a little messier than a five-minute dance performance can convey. But Shen Yun doesn't dwell on shades of gray. Instead, they pull no punches in their performance.
Finally, the lights came up for intermission and I wandered out into the lobby, blinking and dazed. Outside, a young woman with an audio recorder was cornering patrons and asking for their reactions. Another reporter from NYTimes stops me for a quick Q&A, and I haven’t even made it up the hall yet. I turn on my phone and open Facebook and stare at another “Shen Yun” ad.
I steel myself for a second half of more of the same: disorienting dance numbers, operatic vocals and a sprinkle of politics. But the second half’s opening number didn’t catch my attention like it did in the first half. There was a dance that ended in a mimicked suicide. Another dance story seemed to be about a guy who trips on drugs and sees angels. Still another that had a harem girl in the emperor’s court sacrificing herself in marriage to save her country.
In the final dance number, a group of Falun Dafa followers, who clutched books of religious teachings, battled for space in a public square with corrupt youth. Their corruption was evident because they were wearing black, looking at their cell phones. Chairman Mao appeared, and the sky turned dark. Suddenly, the city in the digital backdrop was obliterated by an earthquake, then finished off by a communist tsunami. A red hammer and sickle glowed in the center of the wave. Dazed, I rubbed my eyes and saw a huge, bearded face disappearing in the water.
“Was that . . . ?” I said to my wife, wondering if I needed to go to the hospital.
“Yeah, I think that was a tsunami with the face of Karl Marx.”
So, everyone danced. The show ended. There was sporadic standing ovations. Or maybe it was just people standing to leave. Obviously, the outtakes they use for the commercials wasn’t the show I just watched, nowhere near the vision and exciting choreography shown in their marketing ads. The ensemble actually made the bulk of the show, but was even restricted from bowing at curtain. Only the front line of “stars” could bow.
All embracing, Shen Yun was only great for the first few scenes and the last, but everything in between became a monotonous display of duplicative movements and dances. And, unfortunately, most of the stories were too short to fully indulge in, resulting in anticlimactic scenes with loss of impact.
“What’d you think?” I asked the man sitting behind me.
“You know,” he said, pausing. “You know, I thought it was really, really great!” The expression on his face was one of compassion and forbearance but not necessarily of truthfulness—it was, I thought, the look of someone who, in about nine minutes, would be on the 405, wondering, as I have been wondering, how something could be so much more and so much less than what it seemed.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts proudly presented "Shen Yun," performing for three days only: December 30, 31, and January 1. For further information, please visit: https://www.scfta.org/events/2020/shen-yun
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report