January 24, 2013

Music (and dance) with a message

Shen Yun (which translates as “the beauty of divine beings dancing”) seeks to re-introduce the world to a threatened culture.

Charlotte has had its share of protests against theatrical productions. There was the “Angels in America” firestorm in 1996 and last year a handful of people gathered outside Spirit Square to protest Queen City Theatre’s production of “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” a retelling of The Book of Genesis with Steve standing in for the biblical Eve.

It’s unlikely anyone in Charlotte will protest Shen Yun, a visual spectacle incorporating orchestra, dance and music that honors 5,000 years of Chinese history in a two-hour span. But there have been requests to cancel the show in other parts of the world. In Ottawa, every member of Parliament was called, says Ben Freed, who serves as both Shen Yun media contact and emcee.

Those calls have come from Chinese embassies, says Freed.

The revue-style performance, though, is not overtly political. It’s a crash course in history taught through song and dance. And it’s a history that needs to be shared, says Freed. The Chinese government has “persecuted a peaceful people and systematically attacked their culture for the past 60 years,” he says.

Shen Yun (which translates as “the beauty of divine beings dancing”) seeks to re-introduce the world to a threatened culture. “We’re here to revive the spiritual essence that’s at the core of Chinese culture,” says Freed. In fact, some of the show’s most powerful songs sound and feel like hymns.

Is the show (making its Charlotte debut at the Knight Theater on Saturday) something like an old-time revival? Not at all, says Freed.

“Religion in China was historically much different than it was in Western cultures. There wasn’t a central church that, sort of, governed all. Religion was seamlessly integrated into daily life.” Indeed, mortals and divine beings merge on stage during Shen Yun, just as they do in Chinese folklore.

“I’d call the performance spiritual but not religious,” Freed continues. “There’s a respect for heavenly order in Chinese culture that’s on view here.”

That’s not all that’s on view. The extravagant costumes and elaborate staging promise to dazzle as much as the veteran performers. The sets take the audience from holy temples to the Himalayas to an interpretation of heaven. Freed says Shen Yun makes use of innovative digital projection for their backdrops. That lightens to load on the cast and crew of 90 who transport the show all over the globe.

When was the last time you saw a concert that featured a gong, lute, two –stringed erhu (a Chinese violin) and bamboo flute? All those ancient instruments and more will be resurrected on stage. All told, 22 pieces are presented in rapid succession. “It’s very fast, there’s lots of energy and it’s heavy on percussion,” says Freed. There are also strings, woodwinds and brass.

But it doesn’t all happen so quickly that it gets confusing – even for children, who are welcomed to attend and often love the musical and dance adaptation of “The Monkey King,” China’s most famous children’s story. (Long story short: It’s about a monkey that seeks immortality.)

Freed and his co-hostess act as emcees. “We’re journeying through 5,000 years of history,” he says. “You could get lost without a tour guide.” Freed, fluent in English and Mandarin, is an expert and amiable interpreter.

“Shen Yun is a universal experience,” he says. “Everyone can connect.”

While the dancers, musicians and soloists all have a connection to China, the troupe has never performed in the country whose history they celebrate. “This show,” Freed says, “can only flourish in an open society.”

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