Last year a friend went to see Shen Yun, and she told me it was one of the most uplifting and life-affirming things she’d ever seen.
For years I’d seen the green poster of the woman doing the splits in the air, so this year I decided to go. I love dance and acrobatics and ancient cultures, so I was excited.
The show opened with some skilled dancing, but to my surprise it was underwhelming. The dancing was certainly deft, but the choreography was not particularly engaging. It was even a bit bland.
So was the music.
After a three-minute dance, a young Chinese-American host and hostess came on stage. The guy wore what looked like a cheap black suit with a royal blue tie, and he greeted the audience with a schmaltzy inflection. The girl wore a pretty green traditional dress and translated the guy’s speech into Chinese. Their role was to recount the dance for the audience, and their performance was like something from a game show, rife with the cheese of Pat and Vanna. They introduced the next dance in a stagey cadence, and then the dude led the chick offstage with an affected, grandiose gesture of “ladies first” that was supposed to evoke the charm of yesteryear.
The second dance was pretty cool. A troupe of female dancers moved with grace and beauty, their long sleeves flowing like ribbons.
And then after three minutes young Pat and Vanna came back on stage. They recounted the ribbons dance and introduced the next.
The third dance was also cool. A troupe of male dancers moved with grace and elegance to a story about ancient warriors. There were even some impressive jumps and tumbling, where one dancer would do three or four flips with astounding agility.
This is what I was hoping for, I thought.
And then after three minutes young Pat and Vanna came back on stage. They recounted the previous dance and introduced the next, profuse with their hammy intonations and har-har jokes that the audience seemed to enjoy.
They did this every three minutes, after every dance, until after about five times I started to recoil every time a dance was about to end.
Meanwhile, the sets were getting more and more distressing. From the beginning they had been disturbing, because instead of being enchanting like this . . .
. . . they were digitized like bad CGI, and almost all of them were artless.
There are video games from 1996 that look more high quality and less cheesy.
And video games are clearly what the producers of Shen Yun were going for, because everyone loves video games, and no one can sit still for longer than three minutes.
I don’t know. I don’t have strong feelings about video games, and I think I could watch a continuous performance for at least 11 minutes.
Then young Pat and Vanna came out again–again interrupting the act; again interrupting the little video-game figure that shot up into the clouds of some high-mountain palace that could have been cool had it been designed well . . .
And pandering Pat said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have traveled from the Han dynasty to other worlds to underwater lands to the outer reaches of Mongolia and much more. And now we travel . . . to the bathroom.”
The audience roared.
Well they didn’t quite roar, but they laughed. They clapped. They liked it.
Outside for some air, I apologized to my friend for dragging him to see this. We’d spent $90 each, plus $15 on parking.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I had no idea it was going to be like this.”
He shrugged. Because, as he said, “It’s what I expected. I figured it would be kinda middlebrow, sort of like Riverdance.”
Riverdance. I had never seen it, and didn’t even have a clear idea of what it was, but something about the word evoked for me everything I needed to know about the reality of this production.
“Why didn’t you tell me!” I said. “Riverdance! That’s all you needed to say! You coulda saved 90 bucks!”
“I thought you knew,” he said.
My friend who has highfalutin highbrow taste and knows I have highfalutin highbrow taste too thought I knew that this was going to be like Riverdance, and agreed to pay $90 to come and see the Chinese equivalent of Riverdance.
He’s so nice!
Well the dancing was good enough that we were both OK with heading back in for the second half. We conducted ourselves past the languid ushers in their burgundy polyester blazers, treaded over the 80s plush carpeting that clashed with the 1909 interior, raced past a woman in a fur coat and a man in a toupee, and made it back to our $90 seats in time for Pat and Vanna to introduce the umbrella dance.
This one had turquoise dresses and yellow umbrellas, and I love that combination of colors.
The dance was cool too. Like many of the women’s dances, it reminded me of the synchronized swimming in Esther Williams films.
Of course, as Pat and Vanna explained, classical Chinese dance is similar to ballet and acrobatics and synchronized dances of all sorts, but predates them by thousands of years.
They also informed us that Shen Yun is a New-York-based company, which makes a lot of sense. I’d assumed it was a troupe of acrobats and dancers based in China. (Turns out they’re banned in China, and often accused in the West of propaganda.)
One of the highlights of the performance was when the music happened to get good. The Western orchestra was momentarily quiet, and Xiaochun Qi played the erhu. There was soul in her music, and beauty in her strings.
Then there were more neat dances with handkerchiefs, fans, and bowls.
As before, the dances were adept, but the CGI got even more bizarre. There was a point toward the end where something exploded and virtual boulders burst apart in a digital corniness, which we weren’t sure was a volcano erupting or a nuclear bomb exploding.
I laughed, and then there was a skilled dance, and then Pat and Vanna thanked us for coming, and the show was over.
All in all, the dancers themselves were good, but everything else was lacking.
There were not as many acrobatics as I expected. Sometimes the dances were too consciously whimsical. Often they seemed to underuse the performers’ abilities. The music was flat. And the CGI backdrops were third-rate.
I guess I expected maybe 6 seamless vignettes (or one continuous story) with cool sets like this:
And rhythmic music like this:
But Pat and Vanna said that Shen Yun puts on a different program every year. So maybe my friend who recommended it really did see a great show last year.
And maybe there will be an awesome production next year where every element truly matches the talent of the dancers.
But really I think I’ll have better luck seeing a different troupe sometime, like the one in the video above.