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Checking ‘Shen Yun’ off my bucket list

How a stunning Chinese dance performance sparked a political discussion with my sons
By Mayim Bialik     Published on 04/08/2019 at 10:28 AM EDT

I just crossed something off of my bucket list. It felt so good! But also kind of confusing, which is not how bucket list cross offs should be.

I went to see Shen Yun, the Chinese classical dance sensation which has been promising to change my life since I first heard about it in 2006. The performers of this traveling performance are members of Falun Gong, a belief system forbidden in China that involves meditation, Tai Chi-like exercises, and a strict morality code (no smoking, alcohol, extramarital or same-sex sexual relations are allowed). Because of this background, there has been some controversy about the troupe, yet most people who have seen it say it is something to be experienced for yourself.   

Now, 13 years later, I decided to take my boys and finally see what it was all about. I picked them up at their dad’s and he saw us off, saying, “Have fun, guys! Mama’s been wanting to see this for as long as I’ve known her!” Untrue. We met in 1995, but the point was a solid one in its intention.

The boys had on their collared shirts for our trip to the theater, so off we went to Thousand Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles about 40 minutes north of where we live. Shen Yun is also playing downtown, but I hate driving there, so Thousand Oaks won out. I also figured a smaller venue would mean fewer people and less social anxiety. We ended up parking on a side street since large crowded parking lots are not my jam, and were so excited for what was to come.

A friend had warned me that the performance has some intense imagery and since my younger son is very sensitive, I did a little research to prepare them for the show. I told them that Shen Yun is comprised of members of Falun Gong, a persecuted religious order from China. I also read that there is quite a bit of religious imagery, so I let the boys know about that, too. Both of my sons have studied ancient and modern China, so they understood the framework and were interested.

So we went, and the dancing truly was unbelievable. Traditional Chinese dance is part classical ballet, part modern dance, and part acrobatics. The synchronization these few dozen dancers accomplish is nothing short of otherworldly. As a former dancer, I know how difficult it is to have two people synchronized; dozens is miraculous.

There is a formality to traditional Chinese dance which involves a set “smile” on the women’s faces which can be a tad disarming but it was gorgeous. The costumes are beyond description…but I’ll try. Because of their intricacies, they look like they took hours to put on, but the performers somehow changed in mere minutes between dance numbers. The sleeves are long and flowing, and are often used as “props” for the dance moves. The colors are the brightest, most vibrant shades of green and blue and fuschia and orange; even my color blind older son enjoyed the vibrancy since pale shades tend to look grey or brown to him.

Shen Yun utilizes an animated screen behind the dancers—which they informed us is patented—depicting various scenes of China: waterfalls, blossoming trees, lakes, and ancient temples. The dancers can “disappear” into the screen while animated versions of them take over and act out scenes on the screen (which was a tad dated in its graphics but still pretty cool).

I especially loved the folk dance numbers showing the various ethnicities of Southwest China and Mongolia. I will admit that I know less than I would like to about China beyond Taiwan and Beijing, but Shen Yun felt like a real cultural experience to me and had me eager to learn more.

Along with all of the dancing, there is a live orchestra that combines traditional Chinese instruments and percussion with more Western instruments. The compositions are lovely; the performance musically was pretty perfect.

There are two songs performed by two soloists: one is a bass—a man—and the other was a soprano utilizing the “bel canto” style of singing in one’s upper register. It’s a very different vocal experience than we are used to as Westerners; there is very little change in dynamics and it can be very…intense. Besides one fit of the giggles (which Fred and I had when the bass started singing—it was just not what we expected), we held it together pretty well. In addition, the singing is in Cantonese with the lyrics projected on the screen. I’m not going to lie—one of the songs discussed evolution not being true and that kind of freaked us out. I’ll leave it at that.

On a political bent, one dance depicted the persecution and torture of Falun Gong followers and it was pretty intense: men in hammer and sickle coats are the ones doing the torturing and it’s pretty bold. At one point, Karl Marx’s face is shown cracking and being destroyed on the screen. Message received. There is a scene where two men are holding hands (rather than a man holding hands with his girlfriend) because he is so distracted by his obsession with his cell phone and this is supposed to be seen as kind of amusing, but it also was a bit unsettling. The general thrust that modernity is destroying humanity was not lost on us.

Shen Yun definitely provided a lot to talk about. After the show, my sons asked me who Karl Marx was, which sparked a fascinating conversation about communism versus socialism. Having taken a course at UCLA on Marxism, I had a lot to say. They asked about our family who lives on a kibbutz in Israel, and how socialism can and can’t work. We discussed if a desire to possess and achieve is hard-wired in our DNA, or if it’s culturally influenced. The boys had a lot of strong opinions, and I was proud that at 10 and 13 they wanted to talk it all out with me.

I’m so glad I finally got to see Shen Yun, and despite the complexity, what will stay with me is being able to take my sons to something on my bucket list. Not only was it stunning, phenomenal, and a real tour de force of dance performance, but it also provided a springboard for a pretty interesting family discussion. And I may or may not have had a dream that I was a Chinese princess in a long-sleeved gown. It was a good dream.

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