For many of us Americans, the New Year has already gotten underway. However, the traditional Chinese New Year, for those who observe it, is still a few weeks in the distance. On Jan. 28, the “Year of the Rooster” will begin, as Chinese communities worldwide honor not only their ancestors but also long-revered deities as they observe the New Year, which occurs on the first new moon on or after Jan. 21 and traditionally lasts 15 days.
While Nashville will host multiple events relating to the Chinese New Year holiday, TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall stage will soon be featuring an extraordinary dance-based performance featuring the internationally known touring company called Shen Yun Performing Arts. With performances scheduled for Friday, Jan. 7 and Saturday, Jan. 8, Shen Yun’s extravagant production is particularly in tune with the spiritual facets of the Chinese New Year celebration.
Shen Yun, which translates to “the beauty of divine beings dancing,” combines classical Chinese dance with high-tech animation and live orchestral accompaniment. Unlike the dancers and the cultural traditions represented in Shen Yun’s dance segments, the orchestra for the elaborate performance—as well as its original score—is a hybrid that blends Eastern melodies and instruments with the grandeur of a Western orchestra for a best-of-both-worlds musical experience.
The point of a Shen Yun performance, though, is not to mainstream China’s history and traditions for non-native audiences but rather to educate viewers and preserve facets of the country’s 5,000-year history, much of which the Shen Yun organizers maintain is in danger of being lost. A typical Shen Yun performance includes 15 individual dance sequences ranging from deeply spiritual to whimsical, alternated with solo and ensemble musical segments.
Dancers in Shen Yun’s five internationally touring troupes undergo rigorous training lasting six months, held at the organization’s New York headquarters. However, according to Jen-Jen Lin, artistic director of the Chinese Arts Alliance of Nashville, a student of classical Chinese dance would typically spend a decade or more mastering the skills involved in pursuing a professional career. The level of physical conditioning and discipline required for Chinese dance can be compared in some ways to that of ballet, but, says Lin, Chinese dance is different in a number of respects.
“Ballet is very aerial; they tend to lift, try to fight against gravity—that’s why the ballerinas are on toe shoes. They want to be very light. They walk with their toes. On the contrary,” Lin explains, “in Chinese traditional dance they walk with their heels. It doesn’t mean they are very heavy, they still walk very gracefully, with quick steps.” Lin says that hand gestures often differ from those seen in ballet, feet are often flat or flexed rather than pointed, and another major departure is the use of props such as swords or flowing streams of fabric that serve as an extension of the dancers’ motions.
While dances are often employed to tell a story relating to Chinese legends, history or traditions, as is the case with this weekend’s Shen Yun performances, Lin says that dances can also be interpretive and centered around intricately coordinated patterns of shifting movements. She notes that the characteristics she describes are typical to traditional Chinese dances of the Han race, which comprises roughly 90% of the Chinese population. Each of the country’s 55 minorities also have distinctive dance styles of their own, says Lin, a dancer and choreographer who oversees programs put on by the Chinese Arts Alliance of Nashville.
The Alliance will be hosting a Chinese New Year event in Hillsboro Village on Saturday, Jan. 28, featuring the traditional Lion and Dragon dances as well as juggling, martial arts, music, poetry and more, followed by a parade in which dancers lead all those assembled through Hillsboro Village. The event kicks off at 1 p.m. at Fannie Mae Dees Park (but of course: the Dragon Park!), with food vendors on hand at noon. In case of rain, says Lin, the Vanderbilt University Recreation Center will host the event. The following day will be the CAAN’s annual 10-course New Year banquet, a fundraiser that allows the Alliance to present events like the Hillsboro Village celebration to the Nashville community at no charge.
Shen Yun is at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall Saturday and Sunday at 7:30pm and 2pm; purchase tickets here. To buy tickets to Nashville’s Chinese New Year Banquet and get details or learn more about upcoming events and available classes and services, visit the official Chinese Alliance site.