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Speak Out: The Chinese Renaissance, Through Dance

By Betty Wang
ART TIMES Online April 2012

HAVE YOU HEARD of the China known as “The Celestial Empire?” Ancient myths and legends throughout history record that the Middle Kingdom was continually guided by celestial beings. Traditional Chinese culture attributes all aspects of its civilization to the heavens, including its script, medicine, attire, music, and classical Chinese dance. 

Shen YunShen Yun "© 2011 Shen Yun Performing Arts

It is this tradition of divinely inspired culture that Shen Yun Performing Arts will be presenting at Lincoln Center in April. Shen Yun has toured the world for five seasons, sharing the beauty of this lost culture through classical Chinese dance.

Classical Chinese dance is one of the most comprehensive dance systems in the world. Dynasty after dynasty, it was passed down among the people, in imperial palaces and ancient plays. Thousands of years have refined it into a distinctive dance system embodying traditional aesthetics.

One of the strengths of classical Chinese dance is its expressivity. It can vividly depict a wide range of emotions and portray any cherished virtue— righteousness, loyalty, benevolence, and tolerance.  It can be masculine and vigorous, soft and graceful, somber and stirring, playful and humorous.
Such range is achieved through bearing and form. Bearing describes the physical expression of one’s inner spirit. Spirit leads to movement, thus bearing leads to form.

Form refers to Chinese dance’s external appearance—hundreds of unique movements and postures. An accomplished performer makes them appear effortless, but they require a perfect coordination of the entire body that takes years of rigorous training. A dancer’s every cell—from toes to fingertips, from the angle of the head to the direction of the gaze—must be in perfect harmony.

Classical Chinese dance also has an extensive array of techniques—jumps, spins, flips, aerials and other very difficult tumbling moves. These supplement and enhance the dance’s expressive powers while adding vigorous physicality.

And yet, classical Chinese dance is still mostly unfamiliar to the West. But that is quickly changing. Shen Yun is the world’s premier Chinese music and dance company; promoting an authentic form of classical Chinese dance is part of its mission. Based in New York, Shen Yun is very different from companies coming out of China.

“With Shen Yun, we use classical Chinese dance in its purist form, we don’t mix in modern, contemporary, ballet, and other dance forms until you no longer know what you are watching,” says choreographer Vina Lee. “Authentic classical Chinese dance can really give the audience an uplifting experience of pure goodness and consummate beauty.”

And with 5,000 years of civilization to draw from, Shen Yun has plenty of source material. Through dance, Terracotta Warriors awaken from the dust, the Song Dynasty general Yue Fei comes to life, Monkey King and Pigsy escape another sticky situation, maidens grace a heavenly palace, drummers shake the yellow plateaus of the Middle Kingdom.

A renaissance of Chinese culture has begun and one of the world’s ultimate dance forms is blazing the path. 

Dancing Diversity
China may not be the first nation that comes to mind when one thinks of cultural diversity, but maybe it should be. Aside from the Han ethnic majority, 55 distinct minority groups comprise the rest of the Chinese population. Many of these ethnicities date back thousands of years, possessing their distinct traditions, languages, songs and dances.

Shen Yun’s mission is to revive traditional Chinese culture. Alongside classical Chinese dance, Shen Yun’s show each year also includes a wide range of Chinese ethnic and folk dances.

Embodying a group’s history, customs, and spirit, Chinese ethnic minority dances are often rooted in everyday life, seasonal celebrations, and worship rituals.

An example of a dance reflecting day-to-day life was Shen Yun’s 2007 Herding on the Mongolian Plains. In this piece, inspired by the Mongolian’s equestrian adeptness, dancers dashed across open grasslands and moved as if riding galloping horses. The high-energy dance was charged with enthusiasm, and mirrored the nomadic Mongolians’ closeness to nature. 

Other ethnic dance styles are notable for their bright costumes. Dancers are adorned in traditional attire that reveals the unique aspects of the group’s culture and environment.

One memorable costume appeared in Shen Yun’s 2010 In a Miao Village. In this dance, female performers don the ornate silver jewelry of the Miao, or Hmong people. To this group, silver symbolizes prosperity and is believed to have the power to exorcise evil spirits. Traditionally, a Miao woman wears up to 30 pounds of silver jewelry from head to foot. Dancing with these elaborate headdresses, neckbands, bracelets, and earrings produces jubilant jingling that makes this number an audience favorite.

Chinese ethnic and folk dances also use many kinds of props—from Han waist drums to Manchu high-heels to Tibetan kata scarves.

Shen Yun’s 2011 Yi Ethnic Dance features a particularly distinctive prop—little circular wooden cases that sprightly young ladies click and flick in their hands, all the while whirling and twirling in synchronized dance movements. The tapping on the cases creates a rhythm so lively that locals say anyone who hears its beat cannot resist joining in dance.

Each year, Shen Yun features an all-new show with all-original dances and compositions. Which ethnic groups, energetic dances, and uplifting stories will be featured in its performance this year?

(Shen Yun will be at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater April 18-22. For tickets or more information, see: ShenYun2012.com/NYC)

(Betty Wang is a dancer and writer who lives in New York)