Shen Yun Flexes the Divine With the Political

Last weekend, I ventured out to the city to see Shén Yùn, a traditional Chinese dance performance, though I won’t limit it to such a restricting description. The dance troupe has toured from New York, where it is based, to San Francisco’s very own War Memorial Opera House, and, according to its website, it seeks to unfurl to the public “5,000 years of Chinese culture.” I’m sure many have seen circulating in the area the blue posters and pamphlets with a Han ballerina mid-leap, orange sleeve-ribbons fluttering behind her. Their website imparts what visuals I can’t: (http://www.shenyunperformingarts.org).

I witnessed many such jumps, and much else that impressed me. For Menlo art enthusiasts, I recommend this acrobatastic feat of mortal contortions and holy melodies for next year, when I expect they’ll repeat their tour. But one can pull up an example on Youtube of these fine flexi-dancers anytime. I’d like to show what was unexpected about my visit to Shén Yùn, or, translated, Voice of Heaven (神韻).

For one, I hadn’t expected Chinese sopranos, or Gǔqín (古琴) and Èrhú (二胡) virtuosos. Punctuating between dances of emperors and generals were these musical interludes, beautiful both vocally and instrumentally. Most interesting to me, the opera singers’ voices would whine out notes I’d normally reserve for a violin, or ripple through lyrics that were emotional, but in Mandarin. Those who haven’t embraced foreign opera, I understand. It’s tedious to read the subtitles the show may or may not project behind the singers, not to mention that it’s capital-D dramatic, but it’s well worth the trouble of practicing suspension of distaste: tricking myself into listening for new words and ways of speaking has brought me fun in all sorts of places. In any case, I got to practice my Mandarin! Also accompanying the dances, the instruments, the harp-like Gǔqín and the two-stringed banjo of sorts, the Èrhú, could bust out tones the Western orchestra in the pit never could. Menlo has our illustrious orchestra, but it’s not everyday I get to listen to other varieties of instruments live.

For another, I hadn’t expected to be fed a healthy dose of anti-Maoism. Two of the dances and two of the songs surprised me with their blatant repudiation of Communist China and its culture. In one dance, a group of students sit studying or meditating on the philosophy of Fǎlún Dà Fǎ (法轮大法),  a spiritual practice centered on “Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance” through meditation and breathing exercises. The Chinese government has banned the practice, imprisoning and torturing its members. Why? Fǎlún Dà Fǎ threatens the Party with its emphasis on independence and growing membership. In this first political dance, angry men in black, whom I assume represent Communism, for on their backs glared an undisguised red hammer and sickle, beat up the group of peaceful students, only to be driven back by an aggressively golden CGI backdrop from which other dancers, garbed in the lavish robes of mythological spirits and kings, popped out and stunned the Communists with their beauty. It was a pleasant gesture against authoritarianism. However, it was a little unnerving as the chipper announcer denounced the Chinese nation for its evils after the dance, meanwhile I sat swept by the feeling that this injection of politics was quite abrupt.

Maoist atheism aside, I was pleased with their treatment of Chinese ethnic cultures. The PRC is primarily Han in ethnicity, but there are more than half a hundred others throughout the country. Mainstream Chinese culture packages the image of these ethnicities similarly to how Europeans with the Romani or Sami, the Japanese with the Ainu, and we do with various Native American nations and immigrants. That is, they are cute; “look at their culture.” I don’t need to invoke mismatched headdresses and impious clay beads to remind us of this. But Shén Yùn surprised me by seriously choreographing dances to such groups such as the Tibetans, the Yí, the Miáo, and the Huí. Although I’m not familiar enough with those cultures to discern precisely how respectful the dances were, the performance was earnest enough to merit authenticity.

At any rate, it was a lovely two hours with some of the best acrobatics and choreography in the country. I encourage Menlo to go see Shén Yùn next year and to please tell the Bard about any other artistic productions around!

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