Given its huge land mass, ethnic diversity, and dynastic history, China boasts some of the world’s greatest cultural riches. From pottery, textiles, paintings, and architecture to music, dance, and opera, China has a 5,000-year-old legacy of refined artistic output. Yet the communist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s threatened to destroy the very art forms, religious traditions, and regional distinctions that make China such a vibrant nation.
As a result, many of the artists and organizations that work to keep those traditions alive today are located outside of China. Among them is Shen Yun Performing Arts, a nonprofit group founded eight years ago in upstate New York. The troupe’s aim is to preserve the techniques and artistry of Chinese classical dance, and to transmit the beauty of the form to an international audience. This weekend, the group makes its Santa Barbara debut.
One might expect that a company based in the United States would produce a less-than-authentic Chinese product, but Shen Yun prides itself on maintaining the traditions of classical Chinese dance in a way that simply isn’t done within China, where the influence of communist rule continues to limit artistic expression.
“The Cultural Revolution was really an anti-cultural revolution of sorts,” explained Shen Yun Master of Ceremonies Kelly Wen in a recent phone interview. “Temples, statues, and books were burned and destroyed. Many arts were forbidden. For artists, it was like a sudden persecution, but they retained stories and traditions in their hearts. When these artists moved abroad, they had the opportunity to continue their work.”
One of the epicenters of Chinese classical dance today is the Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, located in Cuddebackville, New York. That’s where many of Shen Yun’s members undergo years of arduous training before joining the company. According to Wen, most classical dance taught within China is blended with techniques of Western ballet, jazz, and other nonindigenous forms; at Fei Tian, they’re serious about preserving the purity of the form.
“Classical Chinese dance is a very systematic dance form passed down through the generations,” she explained. “It began as imperial court dancing but became a comprehensive dance system — it’s similar to ballet but much more emotionally expressive.” Many of the dances Shen Yun will bring to Santa Barbara portray ancient Chinese legends and call upon the dancers’ acting ability, as well as their formidable technical skill.
“The bearing of each dancer — how each person moves and breathes — is different,” Wen said. “Each one brings about a different feeling onstage.”
The majority of Shen Yun dancers are Chinese but have grown up elsewhere — in Taiwan, France, England, and the United States, among other countries. The same is true of the members of the Shen Yun Orchestra, who will play live at the Granada this weekend. The orchestra is composed of both Western and Chinese instruments, including the two-stringed fiddle known as an erhu, and a hand-plucked pipa or lute.
Between the musicians, dancers, and production crew, Shen Yun tours with about 100 members. The company’s costume designers research ethnic dress from various eras of Chinese history before creating original handmade garments, many from silk.
To add to the visual spectacle, this production uses an animated backdrop, designed to transport the audience to different regions of China and eras of Chinese history, from the open grassy plains of what is now Mongolia to the lavish imperial courts of the Tang (618-907) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties.
Given the vast scope of this two-hour production, it’s helpful to have a master of ceremonies to orient viewers. For Wen, introducing audiences around the world to the best of Chinese culture is a great honor.
“A lot of younger Chinese people today can’t call upon their ancient culture, because they grew up under the regime,” she noted. “Luckily, we’ve been able to revive those traditions. You can have rules about the arts, but artists will eventually find freedom of expression.”
Shen Yun will perform at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Saturday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 30, at 2 and 7 p.m. For tickets, call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.