Review: Shen Yun, Detroit Opera House, Jan 26, 2012

By Julie Gervais

Shen Yun is on a mission.

The 5,000 years of Chinese civilization are not uppermost in American minds these days, when we think about China. Economists focus on trade imbalances and currency “misalignments”, some people pay attention to human rights issues, and most everyone else just wonders whether we’ll ever get our jobs back. Yet relieving these tensions is not Shen Yun’s mission, exactly.

The Michigan Falun Dafa Association, which presents the company, wishes to ‘reclaim and renew the true, divinely-inspired cultural heritage of China’. It’s a noble goal, also a tall order. They spare no effort or expense in pursuit of it.

Shen Yun

Monkey kings and joyful little monks, flower fairies and Taiwan’s indigenous peoples…unless you are schooled in this or have grown up with it, it’s all very exotic, very new, very…foreign. This includes, of course, the music – all original compositions but, we are made to understand, styled in the manner of tradition.

The beauty is almost blinding. So many stunning costumes, exquisitely wrought. So much highly trained classical Chinese dancing (which contains elements of  ballet, folk dance and what we call gymnastics). Such lovely singing, earnest and impassioned. It’s dazzling, really.

Yet the performance as a whole is difficult to love. Each dance or song is introduced by two emcees, a man and a woman in elegant evening wear who offer both English and Mandarin in alternating turns. (This is great for anyone studying the language.) Applause after each number is followed by more applause after each subsequent introduction. All of the pieces are quite short, giving the evening a rather choppy feeling. Dance recitals and competitions have this format by necessity, but it’s not at all clear why a professional company would choose it, given its limitations on development of themes, stories, and characters. For some of the dances, which seem meant to convey only beauty or traditional values such as compassion and loyalty, the brevity is fine.

The dances with stories, however, are somewhat inscrutable: ‘Crazy Ji was an unconventional monk who overstepped the rules. When villains gang up on an innocent flower girl, Ji’s clever antics outsmart them to save the day’.  It’s charming and timeless, but we never quite get time to attach to Ji, to know and love him for his quirky character, and consequently have to make an effort to feel gratitude when he saves the day.

The stories that present most clearly are the ones about the practitioners of Falun Gong, who are persecuted in China. These stories are all too real, and contemporary, and they resonate. And when intervention comes, maybe from the mountain fairies or from Lord Buddha, there’s a real sense of relief. We have glimpsed their struggles and their pain, and we feel for them.

Sometimes these stories even involve interpersonal relations, such as those between a man and a woman! It’s so rare that it almost seems shocking. Is Chinese tradition really so hands-off about this? Non-Asian people mostly know that Asian culture places emphasis on the group, so it is no surprise that much of the work is corps work. Choreographically, it’s as fine a study of unison and cohesiveness as can be seen anywhere.

Shen Yun ensemble work

Yet, the absence of individuals only serves to increase the distance between cultures, not to lessen it. How do we connect with people when we never get to know them? We can admire their work, their refinement and their traditions. But without a personal connection, we remain remote and strange to each other.

The people who comprise Shen Yun are devoted, inspired and highly accomplished. Perhaps one day they will visit again and tell us their tales in a way that we can really connect to.

What Is Posture?

By Amy Pronovost

Posture is the characteristic way of bearing one’s body.  It is the manner in which the body is held upright against gravity while sitting, standing or lying down.

What is ideal posture?

Ideal posture involves a minimal amount of stress and is conducive to maximum efficiency of the body.  It requires the least amount of muscular energy since all opposing muscle groups are in a state of balance.  The natural curves of the spine are preserved and the bones of the lower extremities are in proper alignment for weight bearing.

How does ideal postural alignment relate to dance technique?

Since the efficiency of movement is greatest with proper alignment there is less effort and strain to achieve good technique.  Before each exercise imagine an invisible plumb line running through the center of the body.  The ears should be in line with the shoulders, the shoulders in line with the hips, the hips in line with the knees and the knees in line with the ankles.  The weight of the body should be in the center of the foot.  As movement begins imagine the plumb line staying in the center of the body.  The image of the plumb line is particularly important while turning and jumping as proper alignment is essential for shock absorption.


Next Topic- Common postural deviations


References: Muscles, Testing and Function 4th Edition 1993 written by Florence Kendall

Vince Paul, Artistic Director of Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, on the Upcoming Presentation of FELA!

Recently, dancepanorama sat down to talk with Mr. Paul in the midst of whirlwind preparations for the Music Hall’s hosting of ‘Fela!’ It’s a three-week residency for this Tony Award winning Broadway hit, and preparations have been under way for well over a year. Producers are Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. How does such a big project get rolling, and just how much energy and enthusiasm has to be generated to ensure its success?

Compiled by Julie Gervais

On Bringing FELA! To Detroit

In my life journey, I did a lot of African shows. I was the production stage manager for a show called Africa Oye, and it really was the first authentic collection of African artists that toured throughout the U.S. In our travels, Fela Kuti’s music was played on the bus everyday. Everyone in Africa knows Fela; he’s a household name. Fast forward twenty years later, and someone does a musical based on his life. And I went to see the show, and I was just stunned. I was inspired, riveted…part of it is the super high energy and the incredible quality of the dancing. It seems hard to believe they’re going to do it again the next night, the energy level is so high. It started off as a dance project, and of course Bill T. Jones is an American master. It was like a full-length ballet set to Fela’s music, and so well crafted.

But then all this other stuff started to come into view, posing questions of social fairness, corruption, and it was about Lagos (Nigeria), yet it could have been about Detroit. The similarity of the issues is extraordinary. And that’s when it hit me…Detroit needs to see this. And I need to move heaven and earth, because it is a healing experience to see it. Suddenly, our issues are put into context: we’re not alone on earth with these issues. And if it helps us to focus on the causes of our issues, it’s the first step toward fixing them. But it’s packaged in such a fast moving, happy way. It puts ideas in your head, and they stay there, but he moves right on. And a week later you’re thinking – “wow is that what he said!?” That’s the sign of a great masterwork – that it resonates for weeks, months. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

The Music Hall’s Educational Mission and History, in the Context of Detroit’s Very Rich Cultural Mix

It really was a very heavy decision to bring the show. It’s very expensive; it’s a multi-million dollar project. And we’re running it for three weeks! Ok, if we ran it for a week, it would probably sell out, and it would be a great experience. But unless we engaged it for a longer run, it wouldn’t fulfill our mission: to augment education in Southeast Michigan. It’s our number one mission as a non-profit: to teach.

The performing arts as a teaching guide, or as a medium, for education – this is really one of the best tools we have. Who hasn’t been influenced by a song, a movie? Especially if you’re introducing people to whole new ideas; to entire cultures. We have so many cultures here, and our programming reflects that. When you come to see at show at Music Hall, it’s a show, but it’s also about exposure to cultures and ideas that may not be your own.

People from all over the world have put down deep roots here, and that has resulted in an incredibly high level of cultural output coming out of this area throughout our history. Metro Detroit has produced more artists of world renown than anywhere on earth! It’s because of the evolution that happens when ideas and cultures coexist and evolve by learning from each other.

This building has always been about diversity. Matilda Dodge Wilson built this theatre in 1928 and it became the first performing arts center of its caliber to offer open access to all people. She was a pioneer in so many ways, and we follow her mission to this day. It’s a terrific reflection of Detroit’s history.

So, many months ago, we started by creating a 30-foot exhibit that shows the timeline of Fela’s life, and students can get to know about him.

FELA! Study Guide Section

The exhibit has traveled throughout Detroit metro… Cranbrook, the Detroit Public Library, DTE, Cass Tech, Roper…and when the show leaves Detroit, the exhibit will travel with the tour. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History has built an entire static exhibit in one of their galleries and it runs for six months. We have a high school assembly program that we take out; it includes an introduction with a screen and narrator, then there’s some African dancers, and we talk about Afrobeat (Fela is considered the father of Afrobeat music), and we play the kids some James Brown drum rhythms, some Tupac rhythms, then we give them a scratchy recording from 1950 and everyone says “Oh! So that’s where they got that!” Because once they understand how music evolves, then they can participate in evolving it. And then they further the tradition of Metro Detroit’s cultural fertility; they take it out into the world.

Scale and Scope

This is, as far as I can tell, the largest initiative Music Hall has undertaken – ever – for a show. I hope we have created a template for future projects. Of course we always need to have a rich mix of programming, but if there were ever again a show that moves us like this, and with which we’re able to satisfy so many considerations, we’d do this again.

Fela’s Humanity and Complexity

The educational programming goes above and beyond what can be covered in an evening’s performance. The show covers a lot of territory, though. This a man with faults, but it’s a real story. We should beware the hero that is too pure. Of course heavy issues are toned down when working with younger kids, but I don’t think Bill T. Jones shies away from them. It’s honest. I think older students really appreciate that we’re not trying to cover anything up, it adds credibility. Kids are smart!

The Master Classes

The dancers are booking master classes throughout the area. (See dancepanorama calendar for this contact info!) I think the surprise will be the level of technique they bring. Being Bill T. Jones’ dancers, they are of course all highly trained and accomplished in ballet, modern and jazz before they even begin to study his movement, and that’s a deep study. It includes the western African dance forms and he is a master of those. The way he brings all of these influences together, the choreography and level of the dancing in this show – will leave you breathless. And it’s hard to sit still in your seat!

Building a Community Team

Detroit has a very rich history, and is complicated. It’s important that we learn to harness our collective power; it’s what will carry us forward. For this show, we have gathered so many organizations and demographics, and we’re all working together to support this show as a community. There are cultural and civic groups, educational institutions, professional societies, chambers of commerce, museums, galleries, libraries, real estate interests, other arts presenters, and of course the media…a very long and diverse list. The Opening Night Gala on Valentine’s Day will be incredible; there will be a day devoted to fundraising for the Jalen Rose Academy and we’ll do a Fab Five theme on February 19…I like to make these crossover connections and they are very important. The show is more than just a show, it’s a unity project. You will see representation from throughout the Metro area. It doesn’t happen fast, but in twenty years, this city is going to be a different place, if we keep working together like this! Not doing so would be the only thing that prevents us from becoming, once again, the Paris of the Midwest.