The Magic of Shen Yun’s Digital Projection (3 of 9)
All but lost in the East, the essence of an age-old culture rises in the West. This is Part 3 of a nine-part series that explores traditional Chinese culture to reveal a deeper understanding of the genius of New York-based classical Chinese dance company Shen Yun Performing Arts.
Digital Projection Brings Ancient Scenes of China to Life
NEW YORK—Imagine mingling with the river folk of yore along the Yangtze River in China. The soft, pink, blossoming foliage reflects off the river; mountains appear in a purple haze on the horizon.
Now imagine standing atop a precipice, gazing along the Great Wall of China, which extends into the distant sky. Smoke signals billow from its towers as they did once upon a time.
In Shen Yun Performing Arts’ theatrical display of classical Chinese culture, digital backdrops bring scenes from 5,000 years of history to the modern stage. State-of-the-art technology is used to depict the natural world as well as ancient Chinese art, including classical Chinese gardens and the heavenly scenes often portrayed in Buddhist paintings.
The New York-based company specializes in classical Chinese dance, but it also revives the diverse traditional dances, dress, and music of the 55 ethnic groups in China.
While presenting the old, Shen Yun creates something new.
The Academy and Emmy Award-winning production designer of Avatar, Robert Stromberg, said that the backdrop could be “a new art form in itself—live performance mixed with digital projection.”
After watching Shen Yun perform in Los Angeles last July, Stromberg told New Tang Dynasty Television that Shen Yun’s backdrop created the feeling of “going to the theater and the movies at the same time.”
“The show was absolutely beautiful,” said Stromberg. “It was so inspiring, I think I may have found some new ideas for the next Avatar movie.”
Stromberg has also studied Chinese landscapes and appreciated the authenticity of the backdrop. “Seeing a traditional performance with the authentic dance moves and authentic backgrounds—it all came together.”
Chinese gardens, like the ancient garden displayed in the backdrop of some of Shen Yun’s dances, have always held profound meaning for Chinese people.
“The Tao (the Way, meaning the Order of Nature) inspired its followers to be profoundly conscious of the process of change in nature,” explains R.S. Johnston in his book Scholar Gardens of China, as quoted in an article by Kongjian Yu in 1993 on the Chinese Garden appearing in Harvard University’s Arnoldia, the Magazine of the Arnold Arboretum.
“Taoist humility in the face of nature is clearly expressed in the design of landscapes and in the adaptation of buildings to their site,” writes Johnston.
The Taoist principle of yin and yang also manifests in the balance of the garden’s elements.
“Water and stone, shadow and light, inside and outside are balanced to manifest the Dao, or Way of Nature,” explains Joan Kent Kvitka, the education director of Oregon’s Portland Classical Chinese Garden, in a Portland State University article.
Shen Yun’s garden backdrop is described on its website as containing “richly ornamented buildings, exquisite flowers, and rare tree … perfectly positioned in deeply-layered fashion, their placement containing profound meaning.”
The golden-green grass is separated from the golden-blue sky by a line of green mountains in the Shen Yun backdrop. It sets the scene for the Mongolian dancers, whose movements resemble those of a galloping horse or soaring eagle.
A 1,500-year-old Mongolian poem on the Shen Yun website illustrates the connection Mongolians feel to their backdrop, the grasslands: “The skies are deep blue, the open country is boundless. As the wind blows the grass low, the cattle and sheep appear.”
The Mongolian people “are known for their closeness to nature, lively song and dance, and peerless archery and horsemanship skills,” according to the website.
From Himalayan Peaks to Subtropical Forests
Every year, Shen Yun’s performance changes. With about 20 dances in each performance, the dancers run through the broad history, and geographical and ethnic expanse of China.
Dancers depict Tibetans in the Himalayan Mountains, and Yi ethnic dancers take three steps forward and one step back in a circular motion that characterizes “Beating Buckwheat Step,” a movement inspired by harvest time. The dance takes place against the backdrop of blooming fields, mountains, and valleys in Southwest China
Shen Yun moves through mountains, crags, valleys, fertile basin lands, down to the subtropical evergreen forests of Southeast Asia.
Ethnic groups are portrayed in their native environment, but the digital backdrop does more than just set the scene. It also provides an interactive prop display, traditionally executed with pulleys, strings, and sandbags.
For example, in a dance depicting a tale from the Chinese classical literary work Journey to the West, the Monkey King pulls the moon down from the sky. In several dances, fairies and divine beings descend to earth as forms on the digital screen. They land on the stage, where dancers meet them and move forth from the place of landing, creating a seamless movement from the heavens to the stage.
Shen Yun “creates a unique atmosphere and a beautiful, colorful world,” Masahide Yanagawase, one of the most famous visual-effects artists in Japan, told The Epoch Times after watching the performance in Tokyo in 2009.
“The backdrops not only coordinate with the dancers on stage so seamlessly to deliver a wonderful effect, but also they are in harmony with the content of each program. The unfolding of the plots and the way of expressing stories are very attractive. It is a precious event to remember,” said Yanagawase.
To learn more about Shen Yun Performing Arts and Chinese culture, please visit http://www.shenyunperformingarts.org