Precision, elegant dance team amazes in ‘Shen Yun’

Principal dancer Michelle Lian, a Taiwan native, has become the 2019 face of the Shen Yun troupe.

The world premiere of the 2019 “Shen Yen” was downright zhuàngguān.

Which in Chinese means spectacular.

Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley was jammed opening night with people who couldn’t wait for it, most of the women and many of the men gussied-up.

My wife and I were excited to be among them.

We’d never before seen the troupe, which depicts “5,000 years of civilization reborn,” but we knew folks who had.

And raved.

So our reactions might have been predicted: Between us, we intermittently labeled the show “amazing,” “exceptional” and “elegant”— any of which is darned good considering we see scores of performances each year.

The two-hour-plus show — backed by a large pit orchestra utilizing both modern Western and ancient Asian instruments (such as the plucked pipa) — is a 20-number gamut of classical Chinese dance, story-based dance, ethnic and folk dance.

And exceptional solo musical artists.

But never before have I seen such tight, graceful dance-work from as many as two dozen onstage at one time, more exacting than the iconic Rockettes of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, as precise as any military drill team I’ve witnessed.

And never before have I seen such digital projections of painted scenes — some painstakingly realistic, some ethereal — that create three-dimensional illusions allowing live dancers to move into the backdrops and become animated characters as water pours from falls, fireworks light up the sky and mystical beings visit the human world.

One of the best uses of the device is “Lost in a Painting,” which spotlights a woman gliding into a huge composition whose participants come to life a la Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat.

“Lost in a Painting” indeed provided my wife’s favorite moments in the production.

I voted for a trio of others, “Fairies of the Clouds” for its beautiful, costumed majesty, “The Queendom” for its clown-like humor, and “Restaurant Cheer,” for its athletic waiters who juggle towels and spin trays.

Every piece, not incidentally, is introduced by two narrators, in English and Chinese respectively.

For those who want to play the numbers game, the company includes some 80 dance-team members and 400 handmade costumes, with each year’s presentation being a total makeover (choreography, music, costumes, backdrops and tales), although the basic format stays the same.

Interestingly, you can catch “Shen Yun” in the Bay Area but not in China despite it celebrating Chinese culture — since that country’s Communist leaders have banned it, mainly because it contains religious themes.

The prohibition stems from the fact that its artists practice Falun Dafa (aka Falun Gong), a spiritual tradition they say blends meditation with self-improvement teachings “centered on three main principles — truth, compassion, and tolerance.”

Falun Dafa members also assert that adherents in China are “brutally persecuted,” regularly subjected to “torture, imprisonment, and killing.”

It should not be surprising then that the dark behavior is dramatically demonstrated during the show in such unsubtle segments as “Goodness in the Face of Evil” in which Chinese prisons are equated with Soviet Gulags.

That, of course, sharply contrasts with light-filled, spiritually-based pieces like the first selection, “The World Divinely Restored” and the last, “The Final Moment.”

According to “Shen Yun” publicity, “Legend has it that each dynasty came from a unique paradise. Over the course of five millennia, deities descended to Earth and took on human form…It is even said that classical Chinese dance and attire mirrors that in the heavens. China’s dynasties have come and gone, and much of this heritage has been lost. Shen Yun strives to bring this ancient and mythical culture to life on stage.”

The New York City-based troupe, founded in 2006, almost always achieves that goal.

Ergo, if you’re a culture-vulture like me, someone who relishes finely choreographed dance as much as I do, or a person like yours truly drawn to unique events, “Shen Yun” may zoom to the top of your “should-see” list — even if it means traveling a few miles from home.

It’s, well, downright spectacular.

“Shen Yun” will play at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley through Dec. 16, then move on to San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts from Dec. 19 to 29 and San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House from Dec. 31 to Jan. 6. Evening performances, 7:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays, matinees 1 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, and Saturdays. Tickets: $80 to $400. Information: 888-633-6999 or http://shenyun.com/.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →