China always has spun on an axis of tradition and revolution, but while dynasties rose and fell over the nation’s long history, no event shook China like the People’s Revolution. Communism did away with thousands of years of tradition and set China on its current path, exiling or imprisoning countless artists, musicians and performers in the process.
One such group of marginalized performers escaped the government that condemned them, and now they travel the world, bringing traditional Chinese dance to audiences and earning acclaim everywhere but in China itself. They call themselves Shen Yun, and New Orleans residents looking for a night of elegant choreography, rousing athleticism and exotic musicality will be able to see what all the fuss is about on Jan. 30 and 31 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater.
Shen Yun, which roughly translates to “divine rhythm,” was formed by Chinese expatriates in 2006 in New York City. Since then, the troupe has grown into three separate touring groups, which have collectively performed in New York, London, Paris, Taiwan and many other places around the globe. Attempted performances in China and Hong Kong have been canceled due to conflicts with the Chinese government.
Much of the conflict comes from Shen Yun’s origins in the spiritual movement of Falun Gong, which combines meditation and movement with a religious bent that clashes with the Chinese government’s Marxist ideals.
Before the government crackdown in 1999 that labeled Falun Gong as a heretical movement, the practice boasted an estimated 10 million followers. Falun Gong practitioners created Shen Yun to both express the philosophy of their practice and preserve the ancient Chinese traditions of dance and music that they feel the current Chinese government has suppressed.
While previous performances have included numbers showing the persecution of the Falun Gong movement, it’s not all politics. Most of the show’s 20-something vignettes are based on ancient Chinese legends and stories, such as “Journey to the West,” an epic about a monk who joins forces with a rambunctious monkey king who rebelled against heaven itself, a gluttonous pig and a reformed man-eating sand demon.
The show also draws inspiration from the unique dances of China’s many ethnic groups and dynasties, each of which left their own mark on the history of the nation.
While the female dancers twirl long, flowing sleeves and pivot and sway with graceful, almost doll-like delicacy, the male dancers leap and bound with violent vigor that’s as much Jackie Chan as it is “Swan Lake.”
The number of dancers onstage and moving in unison also is impressive and is likely to remind audiences of the jaw-dropping opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics in terms of scale. Setting the scene behind the dancers is a massive digital screen that transports the show’s performers to whatever tea house, battlefield or mountaintop is called for.
Classical Chinese instruments like the erhu, the pipa and the suona are accompanied by a Western-style philharmonic orchestra, creating a unique sound that should help set the mood for audience members unfamiliar with Chinese music.
Progress and preservation collide not only in mainland China’s emerging identity as a modern world power but also in Shen Yun’s mission to express what it sees as a piece of the past that is in danger of being forgotten entirely.