Celebrating the rich cultural and modern spiritual history of one of the oldest human civilizations, Shen Yun Performing Arts retells ancient and contemporary stories from China through traditional dance, accompanied by a full orchestra.
After over a decade of life, Shen Yun (which means "the beauty of heavenly beings dancings" or "divine rhythm") now boasts five companies with more than 200 dancers who have performed over 500 times in 20 countries and 150 cities.
Formed in 2006 by Chinese expatriate artists living in New York, Shen Yun sought to share with the world an aspect of Chinese culture the artists felt had been lost in communist China. Shen Yun's founders emerged from the Falun Dafa (or Flaun Gong) spiritual tradition.
Falun Dafa, a spiritual practice with qigong exercises, began in the early 1990s and was originally accepted by the Chinese government until its growing size and the spiritual teachings were seen as a threat to the mainly atheist nation. At the turn of the century, there were an estimated 70 million practitioners in the most populated country in the world.
The Chinese government cracked down on the qigong movement in the late '90s and early oughts, blocking websites and sharing propaganda that denounced the spiritual and meditative practice. Its meditative dogma is based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. It was declared a "heretical organization" in late 1999.
To this day, Shen Yun Performing Arts is not allowed to perform in China.
"It's really a shame that a lot of dancers in China don't have the opportunity to perform true traditional dances like the fantastic Shen Yun performances," associate company manager, choreographer and principal dancer Yungchia Chen said in a video on the company's website. "They have no chance to present their talents on an international stage. After watching Shen Yun, I was like, 'This is true Chinese culture.'"
Shen Yun's programming shifts each year, but is typically comprised of about 20 vignettes of stories from Chinese history and mythology that feature classic Chinese dance, ethnic dance and even operatic singing.
The dancers are accompanied by a full orchestra that bridges Western tonal music with traditional Chinese instruments, like the erhu and pipa, in original compositions. It is the first orchestra in the world to permanently combine Western and Eastern instruments.
"Shen Yun has a unique way of blending East and West," composer Jing Xian said on the company's website. "As composers, we have to have foundation in both Eastern and Western traditions. Shen Yun's artist goals and ambitions are very demanding. It requires a lot of us, both technically and spiritually."
The dancers, musicians and composers are of the highest professional capacity in their respected fields. Each dancer is put through a grueling six-year training program before making it on stage. Part of the rigor of the training stems from the dancing style itself, which is highly technical and physically demanding.
Traditional Chinese dance originated over 5,000 years ago on the battle fields of ancient Asia. Some of the movement that developed in war for practical reasons was later translated into a social setting and became the foundation for the dances you see today. Each intentional movement the dancers make on stage represents in some form or another the characters they are portraying on stage.
In the same manner, multiple composers work to write orchestral pieces for the dances. Each piece is carefully crafted using both Western and Eastern musical stylings to accompany the individual story being told. Drawing on unique output from the different provincial sectors in mainland China, the music represents a multitude of ethnicities, from Mongolia to northeast China.
Shen Yun will have two performances in Savannah on Dec. 23. Each show will be about two hours long with a short intermission.
IF YOU GO
What: Shen Yun Performing Arts
When: 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 23
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.