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Shen Yun Explained

Shen Yun program coverThe title of this post is what it is because I willingly bought tickets for Shen Yun based entirely on assumptions that turned out to be entirely false. Maybe you have these same assumptions. I had seen the advertisements, posters, and TV commercials for years, and wanted to take my kids. Shen Yun appears to be a well-crafted production showcasing the art of Chinese dance and, because of the dancers’ poses in the adverts, you may expect some acrobatics as well. Finally, I decided to take my now 18-year-old son and my 21-year-old daughter. First, we went for sushi (excellent and inexpensive at Fin’s on Boylston Street), and then a brisk, frigid dash to the Wang.

Shen Yun turned out to be a performance with the feel of the many, many dance recitals I went to over a long stretch of years to see my dancer daughter perform. Granted, my expectations were high. The fact that this performance is at the Wang lends it a level of gravity, credibility, authenticity, and other “ity’s” that are hard to live up to. Because it is, after all, the Wang!

First, it is costly. The cheapest seat was $80, plus $10 ticketing fee. We went for the $88, plus $10, but there were empty seats and so people moved around a little in order to get some breathing room. The seats are very tight in the balcony, like those on a two-engine, Delta commuter flight. My son was grateful for the aisle so he could sprawl at least one of his legs toward freedom, even allowing the man in front of him to unwittingly rest his elbow on my son’s shoe for about five minutes while leaning over to read the program by the light of the small aisle light. My son thought it would be rude to move his foot once the man had settled in. (Same son told me on the ride home, “I’m not gonna lie, playing with my beard was more fun.” And I had seen him twiddling his college-grown, freshman facial hair out of the corner of my eye throughout the entire performance, so he was not lying.)

shen yun dancerBasically, you are wowed by your surroundings no matter how many times you attend the Wang, and then you naturally want to be wowed by what’s on stage. We were, at some moments, brought to the utterance of “Wow,” but not in the right way. As it turns out, Shen Yun is a series of dances (recital-length), some featuring pretty costumes and the famous twirling sleeves. Yes, there are dances with tumbling and flips. Yes, there is a backdrop that changes with each dance and features cool technology in which the dancer can go to the back of the stage and step off while appearing to soar onto the screen as a pre-recorded image of the dancer takes over. It is a fun touch, though my techie son thought the graphics were a tad hokie (my words) and hadn’t been updated since 2006 (his words). The program informed us that this was a patented “system and method for integrating digital background with stage performance” (U.S. Patent No. 9,468,860). The program also wanted us to know that they have openings for orchestra players if anyone was interested, though presumably one wouldn’t be asked to jump into the orchestra pit that very night. It also told us about the choreographers and musicians, about a few of the dancers, and about how to donate to Shen Yun and to Fei Tian, the academy in N.Y. that trains the dancers.

However, buried in a tiny paragraph under “Art with Spirituality” are the lines that “Shen Yun’s performers draw their spiritual inspiration from the meditation discipline and self-improvement practice called Falun Dafa. Also known as Falun Gong, it is rooted in China’s ancient spiritual traditions.” Nowhere in the program does it tell you that you are about to spend a couple hours being told about divine beings and how Heaven is closing soon so you better get your act together. Falun Gong (as my daughter read to us from her phone on the car ride home) “is a spiritual practice founded in China that blends meditation and physical exercise, inspired in part by Buddhism. After rapid growth and massive demonstrations by Falun Gong followers during the 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party began a suppression campaign, banning the practice and jailing, torturing and attempting to re-educate thousands of followers.” (http://www.startribune.com/shen-yun-politics-behind-the-performance/290985131/, February 6, 2015) A group of Falun Gong believers created Shen Yun in 2006 and have grown from one to six dance companies. And growing. It felt, and I said this to my kids, a little like we’d wandered into a cult’s annual performance for their followers.

shen yun dancerThe evening’s performance started with a dance “From Heaven to Save All” but that seemed like an ancient Chinese story being replicated on stage, not the theme of the evening. Yet after some more dances and twirling, etc., suddenly, we were hit with a modern-day setting and a dance called “Unprecedented Crime” based on “true events.” A young man is imprisoned and blinded on stage in front of our eyes. Later, after he’s released, some divine beings seem to float off the screen and restore his eyesight, in a metaphor for his “reawakened faith.” The audience around us started to murmur. Then a baritone came on and sang while the words were translated and projected on the screen behind him, and, suddenly, you felt as if you were in Sunday school, with the closing line sung three times, “But Heaven’s gates will not be open for long.” Yikes! More murmuring.

shen yun instruments

Intermission came next, and some people simply up and left. However, at the cost of our tickets, we were sticking it out. During intermission, the three of us stood around wondering when the Cirque du Soleil-type acrobatics were starting while sadly realizing they weren’t going to. Act II hit us with “A Celestial World” (self-explanatory) and then some more quaint dances with stories of devotion and buffoonery (great word) and archery(?). Then a musician came out to play the erhu (a two-stringed instrument of amazing complexity), and she was great, though my daughter wondered why the musician chose to appear for her big moment in what looked like a salmon-pink t-shirt. We were nearing the end for which I was more than ready. A soprano sang another lesson of faith with the words “Most everyone on earth comes from Heaven” (“most everyone”?) and “Many are misled by godlessness and evolution” (“misled by evolution“?).


A note on the instrumental music that accompanied each and every dance: It was all by the same man, known only as D.F., the founder of Shen Yun. Guess who wrote all the words to the two operatic songs, as well? Yes, the same D.F. So the Shen Yun artistic and creative director, as well as chief costume designer and director of classical Chinese dance, who is also a distinguished professor at Fei Tian College, is all one and the same. See, even though he is probably a very nice man, that just screams cult leader to my brain. (Plus the sunglasses and the initials!)

Lastly, we were presented with the big finish of “The Divine Renaissance Begins” to which I admit I irreverently muttered “Teletubbies” when a godlike being came out of a bright yellow sun, with other Crayola-crayon colors of vivid green and blue on the screen. And all the dancers turned to him, hands pressed together in prayer. The program says “a new era of hope begins.” So, yes, a totally positive message, if you’re not one of those distracted by “Modern thought and ways” that “change us for the worse” (D.F.’s words). On the whole, this simply wasn’t what we thought we were in for.

calgon commercialI haven’t mentioned the couple who appeared on stage, speaking alternately in English and Chinese, cracking jokes, and behaving as master and mistress of ceremonies in between each act. They also, to my daughter’s annoyance, were drumming up business by telling us that there was new choreography each and every year, so even though we’d seen Shen Yun once, we hadn’t “seen it all.” After a while, every time the master of ceremonies mentioned “ancient Chinese” anything, in my brain, I said “Calgon, take me away,” which shows my age if you don’t know that famous and famously annoying commercial. (Plus, I was mixing up my Calgon commercials rather horrendously.) I’m sorry to say I found the couple a bit creepy, too smiley, too jokey, too polished and clean, and yes, reminiscent of my daughter’s dance teacher telling me what I was about to see before each dance when, if the dance is inspired, enlightening, and uplifting, one really doesn’t need a verbal intro.

shen yun gift shop

Shen Yun souvenirs

The elbow-rester from earlier approached me in the lobby when it was over to ask me what I thought. Still a little shell-shocked and unsure if I was among similar-minded friends or among Falun Gong devotees, I hedged with “It wasn’t exactly what I thought.” He told me he’d been to The White House (yes, THE White House) earlier in the year and had seen a group who practiced this religion protesting China’s treatment of them outside our president’s home. I’m not sure what he and his wife hoped to learn at the Wang, but they seemed satisfied by the performance. Many did not. Some people around us during the show, especially by the second act, were laughing. Two men behind us said they could easily be asleep (as I used to feel during a long dance recital). When we all wandered out to the lobby at the end, there was not the usual discussion and joie de vivre and camaraderie after a superb theatrical experience. People were subdued at best, mocking at worst.

Was there some solid dance last night? Yes. Enough to carry two-and a half hours of a performance? Absolutely not. (My daughter swore it was four hours, but that was just her perception through a nasty head cold). Plus those uncomfortable seats certainly made it feel endless. Perhaps the true story of the persecution of Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong (presented for the theatre like a dancing version of The Crucible) would make an interesting show, and I can imagine tackling that script. However, this muddled show of lighthearted dance offering vignettes of Chinese history juxtaposed with violent scenes juxtaposed with religious messages doesn’t work. At least, not for me. And it certainly isn’t represented by the Shen Yun adverts.

*All images are from the official Shen Yun program, except the YouTube poster for the Calgon commercial.

Now What Is in My Yard?

water rat on Cedar StYesterday, the dog was circling something near the tire swing. Well, I’m used to the geese and ducks and turtles and frogs. This was clearly not any of those. From far away, it looked sort of cute and furry. I thought, Awww, a baby beaver. I often see the little brown heads swimming around in the pond and there are definitely beaver dams, at least two.

water rat at Clarks PondSo I approached. The critter was still looking cute, until I saw the tail.Β  The long, fear-inducing, snaky tail. Isn’t that a . . . a rat tail? So isn’t that a . . . a rat? A RAT? What? Ugh. Look at those eyes. They’re beady, aren’t they? Have I been looking at some kind of water rat for 21 years swimming in the pond at the end of my yard and thinking they were beavers?

But there are dams, for certain, and I’ve seen little brown animals swimming with sticks. Do rats build dams? Do they live with the beavers? I don’t know. All I know is that the dog stayed at least five feet from this creature. I got a little closer to take the photo, and then I scurried back indoors and kept the cat in, too.

rat riding lobsterCoincidentally, I’d recently read a blog post on how people romanticize the Victorian age, Downton Abbey and all that! (Sorry, cannot find the post.) Those Victorians were far more intimate with rats than we are — the regular house kind, that is. Everyone knew a rat catcher, or had a ferret or terrier. There are a ton of Victorian images of rats, but I’m going to share this rat riding a lobster because, you know, it’s a rat riding a lobster!

Anyone want to enlighten me on whether I really do, in fact, have water rats in my pond. And what was it doing sitting there, unafraid of both woman and dog? It’s back was a bit damp, so clearly it had emerged from the frigid New England pond water. Why? (Besides the fact that the water was cold.) To do what? I didn’t see it eating anything, but I suppose it could have been digging for worms. If you know about this creature, let me know.

Gluten-Free Pie Crust

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you all had a wonderful day with family and friends. I started my Thanksgiving with dessert — baking them, that is. I like to put on a little music and bake. Now cake calls for happy music, and I’m not too embarrassed to let you know that I baked a superb chocolate cake and made the creamiest of chocolate frostings while listening to the likes of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” Cakes are easy, happy desserts. Pie, on the other hand, calls for absolute silence, at least while I make the crust. Crust is, for me, challenging at the best of times, but gluten-free pie crust (as necessitated by my significant other) is a whole different ballgame.

mama's gf flourIt starts with the flour, and there are a plethora of gluten-free flours out there suitable for exchanging one-to-one with regular flour in recipes. However, some have a distinct flavor of, um, garbanzo beans, which can be tolerated and even disguised in some dishes. However, it is not a great taste for a pumpkin pie crust. After trying many (King Arthur, Bob’s Red Mill, even Pillsbury), I’ve found I like Mama’s All Purpose Gluten-Free Flour, with its coconut, tapioca, and rice flour blend. Mild tasting, soft, and works like regular wheat flour.

Also, for the shortening, I used coconut oil in its solidified white form (looking like the Crisco of my childhood), not in its liquid form. It works really well.

I’m not going to lie: rolling out this gluten-free pastry is nearly impossible, even after chilling, so I usually press it onto parchment paper with my hands, then attempt to transfer it to the pie plate. Et voila — abject failure!

gluten free pie crust

The dog thoroughly enjoyed cleaning up the pieces that fell on the floor. However, I still needed a pumpkin pie, so I gathered up the pieces and pressed them into the pie plate and baked it for about 10 minutes in a 425 degree oven. Then I added the filling, baked the pie for the required time, et voila again — this time success!

successful pieSorry, I forgot to take a photo of the pie before we ate it, but it was pretty darn good. Flakey as it is supposed to be. And no one screamed out, “Hey, this is gluten free, isn’t it?” The chocolate cake was also gluten free (an old Hershey’s recipe using Mama’s gf flour), as was the delicious stuffing (thanks, Trader Joe’s).

A happy, gluten-free time was had by all, and most of the guests never even knew. πŸ™‚

Cat and Dog Love

Chloe and PerryUntil the cat passed away, the dog was more her dog than mine.

When he arrived, Chloe was old, about 18 years old. He was a young pup, about 10 months of age. After he got off a three-day transport from down south, Perry came into a home that had four cats. Two scattered like leaves in the wind, practically living upstairs dog-free for a year before becoming brave enough to be in the same room as the dreaded canine; one (the Maine coon) ignored the dog completely, and the feeling was mutual — I don’t remember them ever interacting or even looking at each other. And then, there was Chloe, a sleek quarter Siamese cat who was, at least to me, refined, wise, loyal, and loving.

Perry and ChloePerry approached her on his first day and got too close. She slapped him on the nose, and he fell instantly in love with her.

After that, wherever Chloe was, Perry was right there with her, whether she wanted him or not.

Sydney and PerryAfter she passed, the dog started cleaving to me and decided I would do as his buddy.

We both still miss her tremendously.

I love to hear other people’s stories of their animals’ friendships. πŸ™‚


It’s Time to Play Guess WTF This Is!

apple treeYes, I know this is an apple tree. That’s not the mystery object though they are a little mysterious in that the tree used to have only small green crabapples and now has decided to go whole hog this year and become a fully fledged, actual apple tree. I even made apple sauce out of a few of the big juicy ones to try them. Delicious!

They are rather like Macouns or Cortlands, but I am calling them simply “those darn apples.” Because now the whole ground is littered with them. I can’t stand waste, but who can eat that many? I put a bag in my pantry a week ago. Those apples are still waiting to be peeled and turned into pie. They have become a tremendous chore weighing on me. And the wasps and bees are out there buzzing around the ones that are rotting on the ground. Even the dog has taken to snacking whenever he wants. It’s apple madness!

wtf1Meanwhile, speaking of the dog, the other day he was barking his “I’m a little frightened of something new where it shouldn’t be” bark. I know the bark well. If a bag blows into the back yard, I hear it. If I move a garden chair and he doesn’t know about it and sees it at dusk, lurking out there by the darn apple tree, I hear it. God forbid a trash can rolls somewhere strange. Bark, bark. I hear it.

So, in the early morning, with my first cup-of-tea-stroll around the yard before I start writing, I figured his bark indicated another nothing burger, as they say. As I got closer to the dog, barking and doing his little hopping movements of WTF, WTF, WTF, and saw the strange entities at the far end of my yard, I slowed down. What the heck? Were they hedgehogs curled up sleeping? Did I want to get closer? Maybe I should let the dog handle it after all.

wtf2Tell me if you can guess WTF this is. I have taken the photo next to a tennis ball so you can see the size. It was solid and heavy. I chucked its three compadres into the pond. (Sorry ducks and turtles, hope you’re ok with that.) I did NOT touch them with my hand. And the dog was perfectly right to bark his frightened bark because they hadn’t been there the night before. Twelve hours and, bamn, four of these crazy things. Never before and not since!

Next post, we’ll see who knows what they are, or I’ll tell you. Potatoes, maybe?

Keep guessing. Happy Fall!