A daughter disguises herself as a son and takes her father's place at war. A magical monkey, an ogre, and a humanoid pig protect a Buddhist monk as he journeys to the western heavens on a quest for true teachings. A folk hero gets drunk, but then saves a village from a vicious tiger. And the Lord Buddha asks the deities in heaven to come down to China and walk among the people, creating a civilization that would last 5,000 years.
If you were to break Chinese culture into its building blocks, you would find that it is made up of stories such as these. Some are beautiful fairy tales that draw from China's vast spiritual culture. Others are moral parables interwoven with history itself. From the time the goddess Nü Wa created the Chinese people from spirit and clay, they have been singing of the exploits of heaven, earth, and humankind.
According to one legend, the four-eyed Cang Jie discovered words hidden in the patterns of a tortoise shell, inventing the first Chinese script. From this beginning, a rich catalogue of writings was born, ranging from timeless poetry to dynastic records to Taoist parables and classic novels.
To unlock the treasures of Chinese civilization, understanding the language is key; which, of course, can present something of a challenge for most of the world. Fortunately, though, there is one language that anyone can understand, although it is entirely unspoken-the language of classical Chinese dance.
Much like China's written language, classical Chinese dance was developed and refined over thousands of years. With a vast and independent system of movements, postures, and gestures, it has deep roots in traditional Chinese ideas about beauty and grace. It is also physically demanding, incorporating dramatic flips and tumbling techniques that share a common ancestry with martial arts. One final element is essential to classical Chinese dance-yun, which roughly translates as the spirit of the dance itself.
Yun embodies the expressiveness of the dancer, the feeling he or she conveys through every movement and facial gesture. Many artists consider yun to be the most important dimension of Chinese dance because, ultimately, the dance is a form of communication. Within the vast system of classical Chinese dance, any character can be portrayed: deity or villain, victorious general or shy maiden. This ability to bring such characters to life makes classical Chinese dance the perfect medium for telling stories.
But where can you find classical Chinese dance? At dance schools in Beijing or Shanghai? Perhaps in decades past, but today you need not venture so far afield. Classical Chinese dance is experiencing a global revival, and its new home is in New York. So if you wish to experience the saga of the Chinese people in all its glory, here is some good news. Shen Yun is coming soon to a performance hall near you.
With a name that roughly translates as "the beauty of divine beings dancing," the New York-based classical Chinese dance and music company Shen Yun Performing Arts inevitably holds itself to a high standard. Bringing together dedicated artists from around the world, Shen Yun's mission is to spur a renaissance of traditional Chinese civilization. The company exclusively showcases two types of dance: classical Chinese dance, and Chinese ethnic and folk dance, revitalizing the traditions of the Middle Kingdom's many peoples. And every season, many of Shen Yun's classical dances are dedicated to telling stories.
In past years, audiences watched in awe as the chariot of the Lord Buddha descended from the skies. They met the ancient heroine Mulan on the battlefield, and journeyed with the Tang Monk and his disciples-Friar Sandy, Pigsy, and the marvelous Monkey King-to the western heavens. They watched Wu Song drink far too much wine for anyone about to go toe-to-toe with a man-eating tiger, and they saw the poet Li Bai receive a visit from the fairies of the Moon Palace, if only in his dreams.
Shen Yun's story-based dances form a thread that links past and present, transporting audiences to bygone dynasties and far-off places. The chronicle of the Chinese people is long and still unfolding. Through classical Chinese dance, it is a story the entire world can witness.
Shen Yun Performing Arts will return to Proctor's Theater in Schenectady, N.Y., on Apr. 27. Tickets may be purchased at: Proctors Box Office, 518-346-6204, or ShenYun.com/Schenectady and 888-974-3698.