Founded in New York in 2006, the independent, nonprofit Shen Yun Performing Arts, featuring classical Chinese as well as ethnic and folk dance, with musical soloists and a full orchestra which blends Chinese and Western traditions, has once again visited Australian shores, impressing audiences from Brisbane to Melbourne.
Shen Yun is composed of three performing arts companies: The New York Company, The Touring Company and the International Company, with over 200 performers, who over the course of seven months per year take the tour to over 130 cities across the world, impressing with their talent and at the same time sharing positive messages with its audiences.
At its core, Shen Yun productions are always inspired by China's 5,000 year civilization, with values of compassion, loyalty, kindness and bravery as the constant focus. During the nearly three hour long original program, 20 classical Chinese dances, as well as ethnic dances are introduced by two bilingual hosts, who explain what is about to be performed by the talented dancers, including a bit of history and meaning behind it, and then, one's expectations are blown out of the water.
The Shen Yun dancers seem to defy gravity, with leaps, turns, flips, spins as well as aerial and tumbling techniques so breathtaking that, one can't help but think that there are wires hidden in the folds of their clothing, which help them achieve such incredible feats. Alas, the artists are simply extremely agile and trained in the classical Chinese dance style, which possesses its own set of strict training methods, focusing on both physical expression and specific postures, enabling the artists to perform seemingly magical steps.
The set design is spartan, and it relies mostly on beautiful digital backgrounds projected on the wall behind the artists. The vibrant images are sometimes stagnant, and other times they are elaborately animated, according to the storyline of the vignette being performed. The animation supports the particular story's otherworldly characters who fly or suddenly appear. The transition between stage and animated background is seamless. For non-Chinese attendees, the animation helped to clarify the story behind the dance.
The philharmonic orchestra accompanying the performers, lead by Italian conductor Cristian Cimei, integrates western strings, woodwinds and brass instruments, as well as ancient Chinese ones, such as the two-stringed erhu, the plucked pipa and a variety of Chinese percussion instruments, to create very unusual, but at the same time beautiful melodies which are tailor-made for the Shen Yun production.
Between dance sequences operatic singers performed songs which invoked spiritual themes, easily understood by non-Mandarin speakers thanks to subtitles above them. A solo performance featuring the two string traditional Chinese instrument, the erhu, was surprisingly intricate, producing sounds which were quite elaborate and lovely to listen to.
The Shen Yun dancers don elaborate and vibrant costumes which add to the sheer beauty of the whole production. Some costumes were interpretations of the ethnic group depicted in a particular dance, such as the Chopsticks Dance of the Mongolian Ladies, and others like in the Sleeves of Grace, the dancers wear ancient Chinese court dancers' costumes. In this particular dance, the sleeves were exaggerated and long, so that they can be used much like silk fabric in ribbon dances, making for a visually appealing experience. Along with the intricate costumes, dancers also use props during their routines. One prop which stood out, because it dominated the performance was that of a simple handkerchief. During the Handkerchief Blossoms, dancers spun pink square handkerchiefs, symbols of plum blossoms and the coming arrival of spring, in a very lively manner. It was an amazing sight. The bright pink cloths took on a shape which was anything but a handkerchief. At times they looked like frisbees, or cheerleader pompoms, and even butterflies.
This year's Shen Yun production at Melbourne's Arts Centre was magical, mesmerizing and an enlightening experience. The troupe managed to convey tales of Chinese history and a message of peace in such an elegant manner, that I left the venue feeling as though I had just experienced a cultural lesson as well as spiritual enlightenment. I eagerly await next year's Shen Yun production.
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre | 100 St. Kilda Road Melbourne
Dates: Feb 25 - 28 2015
Tickets: $180 – $70
Bookings: 1300 182 183