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Shen Yun thumbs up review

Somewhere in the time frame of 1971 to 1974, a troupe of Chinese acrobats and dancers put on an incredible performance at Penn State University’s Recreation Hall. Despite having been a wee lad up in the bleachers that evening, I can still now recall moments of their performance with shocking clarity, such were the amazing skill and feats of strength they brought to the American public.

Lots of male and especially female displays of traditional weapons mastery – spears, swords, knives – whose choreography defies even an aged and highly skeptical intellect decades later, as well as incredible and frankly unbelievable balancing + acrobatic + martial arts acts with tea cups and people, bending iron bars that the audience members were invited to try etc etc.

And now looking back, I realize that those early 1970s Chinese performers must have been the last of their kind, or maybe they were exiles, such was the crushing tyranny of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” aimed at stamping out through murder, torture, and literal destruction of every single thing that had made China China for the past five thousand years. In any event, in Rec Hall that night I had witnessed history.

Well, fast forward about fifty years, and into the intervening gap steps Shen Yun, a modern show about “China Before Communism.” That is, before all that Mao Cultural Revolution communist crap that has destroyed one of the world’s great nations and culture. Begun in 2006, Shen Yun performances have been evolving and growing for the past sixteen years, and now boasts eight geographically dispersed troupes regularly impressing audiences around America. The Princess of Patience and I saw one such troupe in Pittsburgh, PA, this past Sunday, at the historic and beautiful¬†Benedum Theater.

Looky here, I am no theater or musical show kind of guy. So don’t go on reading further here and expecting to encounter the usual aphorisms and adjectives “professional” art and theater critics regularly provide through their Pez dispensers.

What you are about to read is my own unvarnished layman perspective, as told from the guy who almost always falls asleep as soon as the lights go out and the curtain rises, and who is then awakened either by the sharp elbows of the theater goer to my left or by the Princess of Patience to my right. Apparently I think I am not snoring when I sleep in a theater, but in fact I do snore.

Apparently one play was stopped mid-scene while an actor asked someone to stop me from snoring, such was the distraction. What can I say, few theater performances are memorable to me. Men singing…bad. Men dancing in tights and playing dress-up…really bad. Theater and especially musicals and most especially opera are all a refined form of torture. If a play is any good, it will become a movie, which I might see and during which I probably will not fall asleep. My highly educated and experienced opinion here.

But, such is my love for the Princess of Patience, that I bought tickets and took her to see this updated version of whatever it was I had been mesmerized by fifty years ago.

To its credit, Shen Yun kept me awake. We can joke, but that is actually an achievement.

Shen Yun’s scenes or performances are relatively brief, each probably five to seven minutes long, and also varied. That constant change helps keep the audience’s attention focused. The subjects are about traditional Chinese culture, love, war, good vs. evil, history, spirituality, chivalry, family, and the performers wear culturally appropriate dress in each scene. They also have an act about forced organ harvesting, the current real-time inhumane insane crazy can’t believe this is happening actual action of murdering political prisoners and transferring their healthy organs to the unhealthy bodies of Chinese citizens who are “more equal”* than the 99.99% of the Chinese socioeconomically beneath them.

*(George Orwell, author of dystopian novel and a foreshadowing message about the present political situation in both China and America¬†1984, coined this phrase more equal than others in his other dystopian novel Animal Farm, where the political leader pigs betray the farm animals’ revolution against the humans and go on to corrupt the original commandment that all animals are equal in order to keep their pig selves in unintended, constant, never-ending more equal than others tyrannical mastery over all the other animals)

Something I had not seen before is Shen Yun’s use of a digital screen as the stage backdrop, instead of the traditional painted screen that would form the background for the stage in each scene. Shen Yun uses different digital backdrops, often several different ones, in each scene. They are crisp, clear, and bright. They also allow for cartoon versions of the actors to soar through the air or run away over the horizon. Maybe this is old technology, but it is a first encounter for me, and I liked it.

Things I liked about Shen Yun: The amazing dance, ballet, tumbling, and acrobatic abilities of the professional actors, the incredibly tight and perfectly executed choreography, the superior talent of the live orchestra members, and the bright and flowing costumes that must be a real b#tch to move around in. I liked all the subject matters. The simpler weapons handling wasn’t intended to be anything like the old days, but it adds a nice change to each story and act. The pleasant combining of traditional Chinese music with a modern European/ Western orchestra is very cool.

Things I did not like about Shen Yun: About a third of the acts are repetitious, despite using different costumes and some different choreography, with the same sweeping “windmill” arm motions of the actors in each one. Consider that the one act that brought the loudest applause was about a traditional Tibetan dance, complete with very different moves and costumes. Another thing that irked me was how MC/Announcer Perry’s suit crotch was obviously rumpled. Probably because I am not a regular suit wearer, my eye was immediately drawn to this unprofessional and uncomfortable anomaly. Come on, Perry, your suit must be cleaned and pressed before each performance. Even a knuckle dragging lug like me knows this.

In conclusion, I spoke with half a dozen members of the audience both inside and outside the theater, and everyone liked it. Some appreciated the simple artistic expression, despite not synching with the political, religious, or cultural messages. Others really liked the occasional blips of overt religious messaging, which if I had to guess is some sort of Bhuddist messianism that most Christians can relate to in one way or another. One audience member I spoke with said that she is politically liberal, but that she was not bothered at all by the political or religious aspects of Shen Yun: “I don’t have to agree with it to enjoy it.¬†This is just their own artistic expression and I am here to see it and enjoy it as it is,” she said to me.

Amen.

Benedum Theater is worth visiting just to see the beautiful interior

Benedum Theater ceiling

Benedum Theater interior

If I had a big social function, I would have it at the Benedum Theater. Tons of cozy little nooks like this

If I can’t get front and center seats, I won’t go see an event that has a stage.

Shen Yun audience had everyone old, young, in between, Asian, black, white, purple…

Some parts of Pittsburgh have not been successful. Around the block from this ancient bar and hotel we encountered what had been a recently built very attractive state of the art Martin Luther King, Jr cultural resource center abandoned in an overgrown lot

Pittsburgh smartly employs vehicles powered by clean burning propane

The entire city of Pittsburgh is stunningly beautiful. This one column is representative of the beautiful hand carved stone buildings from the Victorian Age to the 1940s. Thanks to industrialists like the Mellons, Carnegies, Olivers, and Benedums, Pittsburgh is a world hub for architecture and science

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