Shen Yun: Theatre Review

Shen Yun! Imagine lively dance, flurrying colours, choreographed acrobatics, swirling handkerchiefs, and streaming sleeves gushing through the air. Now add an astounding staging of mythological proportions delivered through a synchronicity between the physical performer and a computer animated one onscreen. This is a mixed media production that talks of magic as it creates it before you. Shen Yun is also a coming together of Chinese music and dance traditions with traditional Western ones in a concert or revue format. It is Chinese culture with a dash of millenarian dogma and splashes of old Hollywood packaged for a Western audience. It promises a spectacle of, “the wonders of authentic Chinese culture.” On the whole, what it delivers is a good night out.

Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Capitol Theatre, Sydney

The review focuses on dance with a couple of arias delivered by talented sopranos, Haolan Geng and Tianling Song, and a duet of piano and erhu, a traditional two stringed instrument made of horsehair and snake-skin. The piano together with the erhu is lovely but in a night promising Chinese culture, the erhu, played by Xiaochun Qi, needed no accompaniment.

Chinese Classical Dance as presented by Shen Yun holds much in common with European balletic tradition: they both have developed over centuries; they both have developed a style of presentation that allows the central figure to dance out a story in graceful, lyrical movements; and they both share an interplay between a chorus of dancers and their leads.  But they both have nuances that mark them as different traditions. Gu Yun, a dance teacher with Shen Yun Performing Arts (1) points to an emphasis on circular movement in Classical Chinese dance as opposed to an emphasis on line in western Classical Ballet. But there is much more than this. What struck me immediately was the importance of costuming in determining the form of the dance movement. Costumes carry contrasting colours from the legs to the arms. While arms move expressing emotion and gestures, legs carry away the performer in a way that highlights the motion of the arms. Colours displace each other in circular movements of arms and legs that add to the sense of wonder in the routine. Chinese classical dance also has gesture, acrobatics and the influence of martial arts.

The dances, whether ethnic, folk, or more of a dance-drama routine are all interpreted through the studied performance of Chinese classical dance. It is enough like ballet to make it an easy vehicle for Westerners to understand. Each ethnic routine is infused with the flavour of its originating region e.g., Tibet or the Hmong. I can’t help wondering how much nuance from the original is lost by its presentation by a classically trained troupe and on an end stage.

The routines are all engaging and dramatic. They bring to mind the dance choruses of old Hollywood musicals. Having grown up learning folk dances of my own cultural background, I was struck by Shen Yun’s differences with Western ethnic/folk dance traditions. Through the Balkans, there is a strong motif of the connected group as a whole, as a single entity, a single animal, if you like, as it dances. Whether the dance is circular or in lines, the community presents a unified, connected entity. This kind of dancing does not translate well onto an end stage. To engage the audience, the audience must see the performers face and the movement must be presented to them. To achieve this on an end stage, the basic steps of the dance have to be reconfigured. Something of the original feel is lost. Did the choreographer of Shen Yun have to make such concessions in presenting the ethnic dances?

Concessions are also made in the presentation of the music. Theirs is a Western orchestra engaging with a skeletal selection of traditional Chinese instruments. The music is beautiful, but more of a fusion of East meets West than traditional Chinese. Strings and horns dominate the percussion. The nuanced relationship between the percussion instruments and the defining gestures of the dance is to some degree, watered down.

Shen Yun is presented by the Falun Dafa. It is a socio-religious group who have been outlawed and persecuted in China since 1999. If this concert could not be presented in China it is because it portrays their unjust treatment at the hands of the Chinese government. Two routines chronicle their treatment. Their hopes of a future time in the world of the ancient Chinese gods and in the presence of a golden Buddha figure are also danced out. It is not their only message. In a clever use of subtitles, to what we are told is a traditional Chinese song, the lyric,

“Yet some people are only interested in profit

And don’t bother to find out the oppressor’s lies

They dare not imagine that the gods are fulfilling their oath” (2)

confronts its occidental audience. In a performance that is so geared to a Western audience, this is the message the Falun Dafa has for us. The extension of that question must be, are we only looking to benefit from China in terms of the profits that can be made using her labour? Is not her labour her people? The people, whose wonderful performing arts we have just enjoyed, are suffering.

If the role of theatre is to inform, to confront and to motivate as well as to entertain, all of these goals can be seen in Shen Yun. Is it agit-prop theatre? It has its way. It is a little subtler, less repetitive, and presented to a well-fed, western audience. China needn’t worry.


(1) Shen Yun, promo DVD, 2015.

(2) Shen Yun Performing Arts, programme, Gold Coast/Brisbane/Sydney/Canberra/Adeliade/Melbourne, 31 January – 28 February 2015