By Jasmina Wellinghoff
Updated 11:52 p.m., Wednesday, May 9, 2012 http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/a...
The London Evening Standard reviewer who described Shen Yun as “an American-produced variety show” was right on target. After seeing the touring production at the Lila Cockrell Theater on Wednesday, we can report that that's pretty much what it is — a variety-song-and-dance show with some banter and humor, and a dose of Falun Gong proselytizing.
A lot of it is fun, but the politico-religious aspect is a bit heavy-handed. For those unfamiliar with the movement, Falun Gong — also known as Falun Dafa — is a spiritual practice founded in China in 1992 and later suppressed by the government. The Shen Yun narrators talk about it from the stage and the dance segments dealing with this subject are quite straightforward.
In “The Dafa Practitioner's Magical Encounter,” for instance, a man who tries to stand up for his beliefs is attacked and beaten by police sporting huge red hammer-and-sickle logos on their backs. The fellow eventually gets rescued by mountain fairies and the policemen meet with “divine retribution.”
Most of the dance vignettes, however, are either less specific or more mythological when it comes to the forces of evil, and many are visually appealing and performed with great verve and precision. Though all the choreography and music are new, the segments feature either Chinese classical dance or folkloric dances from several regions of China.
A particularly beautiful classical number is Michelle Ren's “Sleeves of Silk,” an all-female segment that incorporates very long sleeves to create swirling aerial patterns as the women glide gracefully about the stage. In a similar piece also by Ren,“Lotus Leaves,” the dancers wield huge soft fans.
The men, on the other hand, play rougher. With practiced ease, they tumble and leap, summersault, cartwheel and fly through the air. The narrators explain that these moves, often associated with acrobatics, actually originated in dance. The male stories deal with imperial guards, martial arts, strength and dignity, but there is also a humorous monastery tale called “Joyful Little Monks.”
And both men and women turn and spin in a characteristic way, with arms working like windmills, imparting tremendous momentum to the rest of the body. Each story segment is introduced by the narrators in both English and Chinese and performed in front of a Disneyesque technicolored backdrop, which did not always complement the dance and the costumes.
But the animated backdrop adds a lot of visual interest to Yungchia Chen's “How The Monkey King Came to Be,” especially when the live dancer portraying the Monkey King seemingly tumbles right off the screen and onto the stage. A neat trick!
Interspersed between the dances are operatic solos on spiritual themes, but they contribute little to the overall presentation and feel out of place.
Jasmina Wellinghoff reviews dance for the Express-News.