Sunday, January 13, 2013
Last night I had the pleasure of taking in the spectacle that is Shen Yun, a large New York-based performance company that stages sweeping renditions of “5,000 years of Chinese civilization.” Through the mediums of traditional ethnic Chinese dances, live orchestral music featuring indigenous instruments, elaborate backdrops and vibrant costumes, the 60 stage performers dazzled Ft. Lauderdale attendees at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts this weekend. About 20 different acts including dance and several operatic solos filled the eyes, ears and senses.
What I surprised to see was religious persecution protest-as-art statements that interspersed the mostly celebratory and carefree show. There were two scenes depicting Communist persecution, detainment, and execution of peaceful Falun Dafa followers. Also known as the Falun Gong, the cultural and spiritual movement founded by Li Hongzhi has been outlawed in mainland China in 1999, through it has many millions of underground followers there.
Given that Falun Dafa strives to revive ancient, spiritual wisdom and mind/body/energy practices, is categorized as a new religious and social movement, and is treated with persecution and fear by its outsiders, I couldn’t help but see some similarities to the Neo-Pagan movement in the West. Also, differences are noticeable as well, including their strict moral codes, frowning upon gays and lesbians, and claims that their leader can perform superhuman feats.
The show began ‘in heaven’, and many various buddhas, fairy spirits, and deities descend to earth through a speeding universe to help turn the wheel of dharma. The show reifies the relationship to corporeal human affairs with the interaction of transcendent sentient beings and realities. It also explores human relationships to the seasons, to nature, and even the moon. The gorgeous costumes and choreography alone are worth the price of admission.
Strangely, I noticed my sympathies for the Falun Gong turning ambivalent at certain moments due to its heavy handed subtext. I felt as if the performance conflated a grand, cultural tour of 5,000 years of Chinese heritage against the singular lens of the Falun Gong viewpoint. In this sense, the show is less a Chinese historical renaissance and more the portrayal of a modern Chinese movement’s struggle for freedom, cultural expression and acceptance. Had this beautiful show been advertised more explicitly as a Falun Gong supported endeavor, the contextual whiplash I experienced would have been avoided.
Shen Yun has been on tour in Florida for over five years, and will continue their pilgrimage dazzling audiences through Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Sarasota and Tampa between now and April. New cities scheduled for 2013 include Ft. Myers (April 23–24), West Palm Beach (April 29–30), and Melbourne (May 2). If you enjoy Asian culture and performance this show is not to be missed. Visit the official Shen Yun website to order tickets and locate tour dates near you.