Shen Yun by Shen Yun Performing Arts
by Meera Velu
Issue 1: Grotesque
In December 2017, I sat in a San Jose, California performing arts theater to watch the Shen Yun Performing Arts’ dance production. This dance, as Shen Yun promotes, finds its origin in Chinese history and classical dance. Sitting in the theater, I was ready for an astounding show—flyers and billboards depicted men and women soaring through the air. Before coming, I had also read that Shen Yun was created by believers of Falun Gong, a type of spiritual practice that had come under attack by the Chinese government. So I expected a dance of defiance.
After the first few sets, I was disappointed; the dance choreography truly lacked in acrobatics. However, the narrative that the performers painted in their dance stories began to engage me. The first stories danced were about Falun Gong practitioners coming under attack by the Chinese government. Following dances then used background videos to create fantastical scenes of Falun Gong members conquering their opposers with the help of superbly coordinated super monks. Between these stories of conquer and defeat were songs that lyrically questioned the validity of science and evolution, making me wonder more about the history and worldview that Shen Yun wished to propagate. Finally, a sense of discomfort settled securely in a later performance act. Unlike a ballet or opera in which you, as audience member, take the simple role of spectator, in Shen Yun, you became a performer. In this act, the two hosts of the show, who had been narrating the dance stories, coached the audience into repeating after them “I love Shen Yun” in Chinese.
The problem was, I didn’t love Shen Yun. I sat silent amongst a crowd of affirmative voices.
While the actual dancing was disappointing, the Shen Yun performance did at least entertain in its display of problematic motivates and the frank unquestioning of audience members.