Shen Yun sparkles, despite unexpected agenda

3 Jul

Audiences might get more than they bargained for in a show by Shen Yun Performing Arts, now at the Civic Opera House in Chicago through Sunday, April 24.
The New York-based nonprofit organization has three companies touring the world, each dedicated to preserving and presenting aspects of classical Chinese dance and culture via lavishly costumed revues. Hence the many geometrically sparkly sequences celebrating ethnic folk dances or humorous story vignettes drawn from Chinese legends and literature in a Shen Yun performance.
But mixed in with all the cheerily choreographed numbers are a few pantomimed numbers that are highly critical of China’s internationally condemned record on religious freedom and human rights. These protest numbers, along with operatically sung Chinese songs filled with religiously tinged lyrics, quickly make it apparent that Shen Yun also uses its performing arts platform to preach on behalf of followers of Falun Dafa (also known as Falun Gong).
This explains why Shen Yun Performing Arts has been denounced by Communist Chinese officials. It’s also no surprise that Shen Yun has been barred from performing in China (a scheduled 2010 performance in the more autonomous Hong Kong was canceled at the last minute).
Now, any patriotic American who prizes Constitutional principles surrounding freedom of religion will surely be on the side of Shen Yun to advocate for spiritual freedom in China via its highly polished performances.
But these protest numbers (invariably showing persecuted or murdered Falun Dafa followers ascending to become spiritual martyrs on the projected video backdrop) come off as jarring in the context of all the sunnier sequences. Even worse on an artistic level, they feature subpar choreography not up to the standards of the other dance sequences.
These wordless protest numbers are also melodramatically simplistic (which could do with Shen Yun’s need to easily advocate to an international audience). But these brief numbers are so basic with their morality that they unfortunately bring to mind the infamous model operas and ballets of China’s Cultural Revolution (just mentally replace the spiritual Falun Dafa book in the sequences with a little red book written by the late Chairman Mao Zedong and you’ll be unsettled by the parallels in dramatic presentation).
Linking all the numbers together are two narrators, Kelly Wen and Jared Madsen, who provide commentary in both English and Mandarin Chinese. Sometimes you wish they could deliver more cultural context to the dance sequences, while other times you wish they didn’t attempt any humor in their banter.
But aside from these quibbles about foisted religiosity and strained humorous narration, Shen Yun Performing Arts does put on quite an impressive spectacle when it sticks to the elaborately choreographed classical Chinese dance numbers. And befitting the opera house setting, Shen Yun also features classically trained singers (soprano Haolan Geng particularly stood out) with grand piano accompaniment.
The blended live orchestra featuring Asian and European instruments is definitely a luxury. It’s also very symbolic of how Shen Yun Performing Arts is reaching out to a global audience to advocate on its behalf for religious freedom. My only wish is that Shen Yun would be more upfront in its advertising about its unabashed proselytizing amid all the dazzling dance performances.

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