By all accounts, the Shen Yun Performing Arts event scheduled for this weekend at the Koger Center is a colorful Eastern extravaganza, steeped in 5,000 years of Chinese culture.
Over the course of two hours, brilliantly costumed dancers working in sync with a live orchestra will bring to life stories from the birth of China up to modern day. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday.
Based on a wide variety of press reports, the show is also a thinly veiled rebuke to the reigning Chinese Communist Party from the followers of Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline based in Buddhism that was introduced in 1992.
The Chinese government has effectively tried to stamp out Falun Gong, and many of its members have been subjected to imprisonment, torture and abuse. Although the show has been praised for its ornate theatricality, reviewers have also noted that the show has a definite anti-Communist agenda. Shen Yun’s own website tells of a 2011 show that included a story about a young Falun Gong follower who is beaten to death in front of his mother by Communist Party goons, after which his soul rises to heaven.
Local planner Ben Yang insists that Shen Yun is not Falun Gong propaganda.
“A lot of Shen Yun performers are Falun Gong practitioners,” he says. “But this show is not to promote Falun Gong. It’s to let people know what actually is happening in China now.”
Though Yang doesn’t want to discuss the politics of the show, they keep creeping in as he describes a country whose history has been obliterated by Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
“We believe the real Chinese culture has been lost inside mainland China,” he says.
There are about a hundred performers in the show, evenly divided between dancers and orchestra. They come from China, Japan, Korea and Europe, along with many who were born to Chinese families in America.
The live orchestra lends authenticity to the performance.
“Nowadays, more and more, performing arts shows don’t use a live orchestra,” Yang says. “They use digital music. Shen Yun believes a live orchestra will better present the music. That’s why they have this kind of big group of performers.”
The orchestra blends both Western and Eastern music, using such traditional instruments as the erhu, the two-string Chinese violin.
Blending music from two different cultures is a challenge in itself, Yang says, because Western music has seven notes in a typical scale (12 in a chromatic scale) and Chinese music has five. Consequently, the composer may have to stretch beyond usual limitations to match a violin, for example, with Chinese instruments.
The Shen Yun dance format uses classic Chinese dance, he says; a “very complicated dancing system” that combines a variety of skills to tell a variety of stories.
The troupe performs continually in North America and around the world, becoming a “worldwide phenomena” in the process, he says.
Yang suggests there is something almost healthful about the effect of Shen Yun on the audience.
People in the audience say they can feel the “inner happiness” of the performers, and the audience gets a boost of “pure energy” as a result.
“A lot of people, when they see this show, they feel uplifted. It’s partly because of the color combinations and also the brightness of the color, and it makes people feel energetic.”
Shen Yun dancers, likewise, love their work too much to ever get burned out.
“They maintain a kind of high spirit, so they don’t feel that much exhausted,” Yang says. “They feel excited. So they can go to another city and do another two shows.”
Despite the frantic pace, Yang says performers bring a missionary zeal to their work.
They feel “the responsibility is on their shoulders to let people know the real Chinese culture,” Yang says.
It’s a message Shen Yun is eager for the world to hear.
Shen Yun Performing Arts will perform at the Koger Center for the Arts on March 15 at 7:30 p.m. and March 16 at 2 p.m. Ticket prices are from $60 to $120. For more information, visit koger.sc.edu or www.shenyunperformingarts.org.
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