Celestial maidens in heaven, scholars playing a drinking game, China’s longest reigning emperor, the ruffians of the Cultural Revolution, the legendary and supernormal Monkey King—these are just a few of the characters Shen Yun Performing Arts brings to life in its current global tour.
By portraying grand concepts like creation or simple, universal feelings like joy and sadness or even the experience of mild annoyance, these characters are brought to life with feeling. The ability to portray such a wide range of human—and nonhuman—beings owes to the enormous expressiveness of classical Chinese dance.
While the thousands-of-years-old form is not yet widely known in the Western world, New York-based Shen Yun has been pioneering a sort of renaissance. In the short 10 years Shen Yun has been around, it’s burgeoned from one to four companies of equal size, performing all-new programs around the globe each year. This year’s program features some 11 performances of classical Chinese dance, along with performances of ethnic or folk dance, bel canto vocal solos, and an erhu solo.
Audiences can see that classical Chinese dance combines dynamic leaps, flips, and other aerial techniques with a gentle elegance, and can even be moved to tears by the performance. But they may leave the theater wondering at what the inner springs of this powerful art form are.
On its website, Shen Yun helps audiences go deeper. It divides the discipline into three main categories: form, technique, and bearing.
Sparks of Excitement
The most recognizable aspect of these three may be the technique.
We recognize the walkovers and handsprings in gymnastics, the flying leaps and spinning kicks in martial arts, the impossible flexibility in acrobatics, the no-hands corkscrews, cartwheels, and dynamic twists of parkour—strikingly athletic forms that are hard-landing versions of its more elegant predecessor, classical Chinese dance.
These are, however, not actually found in other dance styles. And this is just one feature of the dance that is unique.
As Shen Yun explains, these highly difficult techniques have two classifications. First you have techniques where one is “flipping the body,” but it is not necessarily an actual flip. These are “turning movements wherein the waist is the axis and the dancer’s torso is slightly tilted.”
One of these techniques is the “fan-shen,” which literally means turning over the body. The dancer’s legs are upright, propelling the dancer into a spin, but the torso is tilted so that the arms are stretched on a vertical plane, spinning nearly parallel to the legs. Done right, everything looks like a blur, according to former principal dancer Alison Chen’s blog post.
It’s a versatile move that can be done fast, slow, stationary or across the stage, or even on only one leg. You can even throw in other movements, she wrote, including one where you “rotate a full circle while being completely airborne AND lopsided.”
The second classification is aerial or tumbling techniques: the flips, high jumps, and leaps. Like the “si cha,” where you perform a perfect split in midair; or the walkover that requires a dancer to kick into a handstand, do an upside-down split, and land on one leg at a time before catching a handkerchief she threw into the air a second ago.
It is no wonder theatergoers feel it’s reminiscent of martial arts.
In one vignette this year, the Monkey King tests out an array of weapons the Dragon King lays down at his disposal. He effortlessly wields two types of spears, a large broadsword, and a staff—but with the grace and elegance consistent to the dance.
Classical Chinese dance actually developed alongside martial arts over the millennia, spawned from the same roots and developed over time for very different purposes, according to Shen Yun. Whereas martial arts is dictated by practicality, classical Chinese dance is aesthetic; a performing art form used to entertain.
Form and Method
Now, form is what really makes this a culturally Chinese art.
“Its [form’s] literal meaning is really just method,” said award-winning Shen Yun dancer and choreographer Michelle Ren, in a mini-documentary on classical Chinese dance, as she demonstrated the simple but exact way of moving her hand in a mere circle. “How your hand moves up, how it makes a circle, how it moves downward; how the body moves, how the head, hand, and eyes move. How to use one’s breath, and eventually where one eventually rests, and how to relax.” It is all exact.
There are movements and postures specific to the dance form, and distinctly Chinese. For instance, the female dancers take quick half steps across the stage that make them appear to float. Or the dancers sometimes retain “orchid palm” hand postures—a molding of the hands into a shape meant to evoke orchids—in some of the dances.
Throughout the thousands of years of Chinese history, each dynasty had its own imperial court dances, and form has been passed down to the public and courts through these dances, plays, and performances.
So classical Chinese dance has developed into an independent dance system, one of the most comprehensive in the world alongside ballet.
Ms. Li Caie, an elderly dancer and dance instructor who has been honored as a national treasure of Taiwan, caught one of Shen Yun’s earlier global tour performances in 2009.
“The female dancers’ performance was like a gentle breeze blowing in spring, while that of the male dancers demonstrated their masculinity. The strength and beauty of classical Chinese dance presented by Shen Yun deserves to be emulated,” she said. She was inspired to call on the generation of young dancers to hone their skills and emulate the success of Shen Yun dancers.
Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and classically trained dancer Elan McAllister saw a performance that same year in New York and was amazed by what she called a “delicate quality” in the dance.
“It’s just beautiful, it’s lush, the movement is enchanting. I am amazed at just how delicate it is and clean and pure. It’s something really so simple and yet there’s something so deep and rich about the movements.”
“I think you can really see how the dancers feel every movement that they are doing. You can see how it comes from a deeper place.” She said these dancers “are so connected with their movements that it’s like breathing. It looks so effortless and so organic to them, it looks like it’s just a part of them.”
Imbued With Spirit
This deeper meaning, Ms. McAllister and so many other audience members feel is integral to the dance, most likely comes from the last but very vital part of classical Chinese dance: bearing.
Bearing is similar to inner spirit. Shen Yun defines it as consisting of “internal spirit, breath, intent, personal aura, and deep emotional expression.”
It is what makes the hand motion of a mere circle a different one from person to person, as each person has a different and unique bearing. In dance, these are no longer formulaic movements, but portrayals of character.
The same move performed by the Lady of the Moon, Chang’E, is different when mirrored by her husband, the legendary archer Hou Yi.
Because Shen Yun’s dances all tell stories, whether they are adapted from events thousands of years ago, legends and myths, poems and novels, or events today, at first glance it seems characterization would of course be an integral part of the dance. But it was not always so.
In China today, under communist rule, the dance still exists in form, but not spirit. Dancers can be perfectly trained in the physical sense, but not taught how to incorporate bearing, or the philosophy behind the arts. Versions of the dance often incorporate modern concepts in order to fall in line with communist ideology, which shuns traditional morality.
Several choreographers explained among many things, in a video, how they came to Shen Yun in New York. Many were dancers of critical acclaim back in China, and noticed right away the very critical difference Shen Yun took to classical Chinese dance. That is, without bearing, it is not truly classical Chinese dance.
“In essence, the spirit leads form, so that form is imbued with spirit,” the website states.
Traditional Chinese culture emphasized principles such as reverence for the heavens, virtue, and that good is rewarded and evil is punished. People strove to embody benevolence, honor, propriety, wisdom, and sincerity. In order to capture the core of this culture, the artists found they needed to elevate themselves as well.
Accomplished dancer and choreographer Yungchia Chen talked about his experience when he joined Shen Yun in 2007, just one year after the company was founded.
“Being a part of Shen Yun has been a process of elevation for my body and soul. In trying to revive traditional culture, we have to comply with its values and thinking. Our ‘returning to the traditional’ can’t just be for show. The ancient Chinese had great faith and respect for the divine. As modern people, we have to change the way we think, and purify our minds bit by bit,” he said in the interview posted on the Shen Yun website.
And audiences can feel it.
Alice Celine and Robert Walters have tried to make it to Shen Yun for the last three years. Upon finally seeing it this January, Ms. Celine said, “It was absolutely remarkable. It’s transformative.”
“I feel like it was reaching out to the soulful side of people and coming closer to what we all consider to be God or goodness, and to pull that out of ourselves and to stand up to that,” she said.
In 2012, Miss India International, Preity Uupala, saw Shen Yun in Los Angeles.
“It was so magical and colorful. I didn’t realize China was so diverse,” she said, “There were so many different regions with different music and costumes. It gives the viewer an amazing perspective about China. Much bigger than what we think of.”
“It’s very inspiring and very spiritual. Some of the pieces, I just closed my eyes and I felt like it was a meditation. The energy was very powerful in the room. It’s not just some dance and music, it’s more than that. It’s very healing actually,” Ms. Uupala said.
“I look forward to watching this show many more times.”