New Takes on Old Traditions Make Shen Yun a Must-See

New Takes on Old Traditions Make Shen Yun a Must-See

Created in 2006 by artistic director D.F., Shen Yun is a New York-based collaboration of Chinese performing artists from all over the world. Together, they present 5,000 years of history via themed vignettes, which range from interpretation of ancient Chinese stories (“Monkey King and the Dragon Palace” and “The Lady of the Moon”) to different regions of China (“Celebrating the Divine” and “Drums of the Grasslands”) to showcasing more recent political unrest (“Monks and the Red Guards” and “Hope for the Future”). Though Shen Yun celebrates Chinese culture, this show is universally appealing and entertainingly educational for any audience.

The Far East gets a little help from the West as the orchestra combines traditional Chinese instruments with those that make up symphonies of Western cultures. The full sound of this live music beautifully complements the powerful choreography.

Shen Yun puts Classical Chinese dance front and center, and it was fun to see how movements from thousands of years ago are so similar to modern ballet and gymnastics. Yes, graceful arm extensions and high-energy tumbling has been popular a lot longer than you might have realized. The precision and synchronicity of the dancers is incredible. Every wrist flick is the same. Every turn is together. There’s just something so inherently satisfying and calming about watching a group of people wearing gorgeous flowing costumes move as one.

Each vignette is introduced with exposition about the story ready to unfold. Having some plot in mind going into each dance helps you identify specific characters, but there is still so much room to let your imagination fill in the details as to what each action means. Many of the stories are uplifting and peaceful, while some depict targeted acts of violence.

There is much to marvel at with each rise of the curtain. The costumes are stunning and most feature design elements that allow dancers to use their sleeves and dresses as colorful flags, which can be whipped about. In addition to their costumes, the dancers also use props to add dramatic whimsy to the performance. My favorite scene is “Fairies of the Sea,” in which the performers have large white fans with blue material trailing from the edges, which mimic the movement of rippling waves of water when the dancers quickly move their hands. In “Handkerchiefs,” the dancers twirl around beautiful pink handkerchiefs, which they also can spin like plates and toss to and fro like some sort of boomerang. It wasn’t magic, yet it was truly magical.

In addition to the dancing and orchestra, there are solo artists throughout the performance. Three talented vocalists sing about Chinese culture and religious beliefs, while Xiaochun Qi plays an erhu (a two-stringed instrument, sometimes called a Chinese fiddle) during a moving piece titled “Divine Elegance.” All are accompanied by Xin Lian on piano.

Shen Yen is at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center through March 13.

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