Over the years, Pittsburgh has seen many performers from China, beginning with the Silk Road Dance Theater in 1982 and moving through the decade-long reign of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancers Ying Li and Jiabin Pan.
The ensembles always attract large audiences, defining an existing appetite for all things Chinese. Now Shen Yun Performing Arts, a relatively new (2006) New York City-based group, is capitalizing on that appetite with four performances at the Benedum Center this weekend.
There is more than meets the eye in this 180-member troupe, which is divided into three touring companies and focuses on spectacular dance production numbers with full orchestra. Show emcee Ben Freed says it meets a "need for an international alternative to Chinese culture coming out of Beijing."
Shen Yun showcases a spiritual practice or movement known as Falun Gong or Falun Dafa. Founded by Li Hongzhi in China in 1992, it resembles qigong or t'ai chi according to some observers. Although it has been renounced by the Chinese government, it has many followers and has quickly grown to become an international movement.
Falun Gong's mix of politics and art is not unique -- remember modern dance master Bill T. Jones' 2005 "Blind Date," an indictment of the Iraq war? -- but no Chinese group has ever done something quite like this. It's almost like a mini cultural exchange, a way to introduce Falun Gong to Westerners.
Mr. Li and the movement he started have become the center of controversy in the 20-odd years of its existence, and the Chinese government has taken an active position against the group. Reviewers of Shen Yun's past performances have noted that the large traditional Chinese dance numbers are broken up by mini "dance-dramas" that depict the persecution of Falun Gong members by Chinese soldiers. Falun Gong has alleged human rights violations and has enlisted various international organizations and human rights watch groups, including the U.S. State Department and United Nations, to condemn their treatment by authorities.
Mr. Li himself is an enigma. In a 1999 interview with Time magazine, he said that "aliens [from other planets] have begun to invade the human mind." He also has spoken out against interracial marriage and homosexuality in his book, "Zhuan Falun."
Now a permanent U.S. resident, he has settled with his family in New York City, where his group established a Chinese language TV station, known as New Tang Dynasty Television, in 2001. Shen Yun, which literally means "divine rhythm," was established through that station. After three years, the dance company became its own entity and now tours all over the world.
According to Mr. Freed, the group is a mix of Chinese expatriates, international performers and Americans. The young emcee himself is "100 percent American" and was born in Silver Spring, Md., where he studied guitar and trumpet. He furthered his studies at The New School in New York, where he began delving into Chinese culture and learned Mandarin. Although he joined the company as a performing artist in 2006, Mr. Freed's language skills earned him a quick promotion to the role of bilingual emcee.
The main purpose of the company, he says, is to "revive the spiritual core of traditional Chinese culture and the performing arts." Considering the wealth of material that has accumulated over the course of 5,000 years, Mr. Freed says that it is "truly inexhaustible."
The company changes its program each year. "There is an unbelievable amount that is unfamiliar to Western audiences," he declares.
Falun Gong has established two schools, called Fei Tian Academies of the Arts, in upper New York state and San Francisco to train potential members for the young company.
Drawing upon Chinese classical tradition with original choreography and composition, its members use "high-flying technique and refined and expressive movement in the upper body," he says. Then elaborate costumes and live orchestral music are added to the mix.
"One of the great things about the performance is that the audience can take away what speaks to them," Mr. Freed says. Then he goes further.
"Some people really connect with the spiritual message about looking inside and trying to find something like an inner strength, [maybe] something greater than us in the universe."