- Owen Thomas Webb
‘Shen Yun, 5,000 Years of Chinese Civilization Reborn’ - A Review
Edinburgh Playhouse, 12th January 2023
Shen Yun, the dance troupe of the Chinese American Falun Gong organization, tour the world promising to give their audiences a glimpse of five thousand years of ‘genuine’ Chinese civilization, a seemingly mythological vision of a China characterized by golden temples and celestial cloud maidens rather than by skyscrapers and pop idols. Their 2023 World Tour boasted new music and choreography alike, but it quickly proved to the audience that it had two left feet.
Part of the Shen Yun experience is the astronomical cost of entry into their normally secretive performances. I bought two of the least expensive tickets, costing a total of £134 for entry into the stalls, where the view of the performance was for the most part unobscured, but not impressive given the asking price. Once seated, a Shen Yun attendee will experience a theatre full of an unabashedly stereotypical, but nonetheless relaxing, oriental melody playing on a loop, while the curtain has projected onto it a gigantic, uncomfortably insistent message of ‘Strictly No Photography’. Shen Yun maintain a strict no-photography policy, which on paper sounds understandable if the objective is to stop the compulsive mobile users in attendance from ‘distracting the performers’ – but it goes beyond a request to turn off your phone before the curtain goes up. I was not impressed when my companion had her handbag and personal belongings involuntarily searched with a hand torch by a member of staff with seemingly no concept of being at least polite when unnecessarily invading a patron’s privacy. For the sake of fairness, I am under the impression that this policy is in place at all Shen Yun performances and is nothing to do with the Edinburgh Playhouse itself.
The performance itself was dominated by dance with no spoken word at all present throughout, except for during the digitized excerpts projected onto the back of the stage. During the first of these expository interruptions, a green-screened Master Li Hongzhi, founder of the Falun Gong new religious movement, leads a journey of human souls through space from one dimension to another, and eventually to Earth, where some of the most enlightened of these souls alight on China. How this important part of Shen Yun’s spiritual narrative was articulated proved to be underwhelming; the use of a projector — a blurry, cartoonish picture displayed onto the back of the stage — was clearly intended to compensate for the inability of the dance and music to communicate a story to the audience. With respect to the fact that Shen Yun market themselves as ‘reviving classical Chinese dance’, the dance routines proved themselves to be extremely repetitive. It was not clear to me what the significance of the given dance was within the brief stories which were mainly played out on the projected screen behind the actual performers. The only outstanding moment that I remember being genuinely visually impressed by was the appearance of the ‘celestial maidens’ at the beginning of the performance. Clouded by machine-made smoke and flanked by projected images of golden temples, the performers danced an apparently Chinese iteration of the apsara ‘celestial cloud maiden’ dance from Hindu tradition. Notably, these dancers were introduced as ‘apsara’ but no such term is used in Chinese dance; the correct term, would be ‘fei tian’ as used by the Shen Yun-affiliated Fei Tian Academy of the Arts. Nonetheless, this was at least a discernibly Asian piece of imagery and costume, but the choreography itself could be criticized for essentially being an appropriation of the style, characterized by vague gestures supposed to evoke those of apsara dance – which traditionally includes features of mime – and specifically mime which is sexually suggestive. In the context of Shen Yun, these poses suggested nothing against the backdrop of an incredibly asexual performance.
Less authentic still was the live music, performed by Shen Yun’s own travelling orchestra, equipped with what they insist is a combination of European and Chinese instruments. This was comparable to the choreography in that it lacked distinguishing features from piece to piece, absent of any tone other than grandiose. Granted, the playing was to my musically untrained ears quite precise, but the faux-Chinese melodies and the symbolic contribution of such instruments as the erhu gave a distinct impression that this was supposed to play into the kind of ‘oriental’ stereotype that English-language film and television usually does when depicting any part of Asia. Shen Yun’s music was at least as vague as the choreography, and comparably repetitive. It would not be an exaggeration to say that by listening to the music featured in their brief online advertisements, one would get a sense of what all two and a half hours of the performance’s live orchestral score was like.
The costume design of the Shen Yun performance was congruent in theme and style to the choreography and music. Though I am not an expert in the traditional clothing of the rural far east, I could see clearly enough that the costume of the Shen Yun performers was just that: a costume fit for a costume performance. Shen Yun claimed to represent the “authentic, traditional dance” of no less than three of China’s ethnic minorities; the Mongolians, the Manchurians, and the Tibetans, but the choreography, theme music and costume of each was indistinguishable from that of the characters representing Han ethnicity people. No distinct cultural story was told by any of them, simply being introduced by a brief narrative interruption and forgotten about a moment later. These ethnic dances were introduced with such names as “Snowy Mountain Tibetan Dance” and, I kid you not, “Mongolian Chopsticks.” In other words, it seemed to me that the appeals to China’s ethnic diversity were orientalist at best, in an effort to entertain the overwhelmingly white septuagenarian audience. For the purpose of evaluating Shen Yun’s authenticity, I was accompanied by a Chinese friend, who noted at one point that she hadn’t seen any other Chinese in attendance. The costume design could nonetheless be congratulated for providing the only laugh that Shen Yun got that night; a scene in which two male characters cross-dressed brought some joy to the elderly in attendance who found it a novel sight.
The conclusion of the performance came as a relief after two and a half hours of wallpaper-paste music and the same dance repeatedly. The performance, again through the use of the projector, changed its backdrop from ancient to modern with each dance, presumably in an attempt to draw parallels from one time to another, but no such parallels were clear. The second half of the performance was characterized by three musical numbers interspersed between dances, featuring a pianist and a vocalist on more than one occasion claiming that “Atheism and evolution are the doctrines of Satan” and declaring Master Li Hongzhi to be leading the way to restoring mankind to its spiritually pure state. The final statement of Shen Yun is the appearance of Li Hongzhi himself, or a very close approximation, who holds back a tidal wave from washing away Shanghai before a giant rotating swastika is projected onto the wall behind him, and the performance ends with the cast bowing not in the direction of the audience, but honoring the statue-like Master Li.
It is difficult to give a chronological impression of a Shen Yun performance; no coherent story exists in the first hour, which is filled entirely by unrelated recollections of ancient Chinese history and myth told through repetitive dance, boring music and unconvincing play fighting reminiscent of what one would see in a children’s pantomime. The second half of the performance delivers the overt political message that Falun Gong charge such a high price for their audience to hear, and this only left a sour taste in the mouth of the theatre-goers who expected better than to be told that Li Hongzhi is a deity. It must be concluded that part of Shen Yun’s mystery is its impossibility to review based on performance alone, as there is so little performance throughout the two and a half hour runtime that one isn’t sure what has actually happened by the end. Shen Yun is cheap and unconvincing, like a children’s pantomime. But, in this pantomime, one will find the sinister villain is the hero of the piece, with his golden swastikas and all.