On a rainy Thursday, guests braved the traffic mess created by President Obama’s visit to New York and streamed into Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater in a blur of gowns and tuxes. High-profile attendees from the worlds of fashion (Hamish Bowles, Donna Karan), literature (Salman Rushdie), rock ’n’ roll (Ric Oscasek, Paulina Porizkova and their two teenage sons) and society (Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia) all rubbed shoulders with a bevy of stooped Asian grandparents eager to see a traditional dance performance. The Observer was there along with them to see the first of five performances by Shen Yun—a performing arts troupe that showcases traditional Chinese dance and art forms.
We were seated next to a harried Ann Dexter-Jones, mother of the three Ronson siblings. “Can you believe the president’s shut down half of Manhattan?” drawled the Brit. “I had to walk nearly half an hour to get here!”
Associated with the Falun Gong movement, the spiritual group that has been harshly repressed by the Chinese government since the 1990s, Shen Yun aims to show the world the rich and oft-forgot cultural heritage of China while also exposing the country’s current political brutalities.
As such, the show included acts featuring ancient Chinese dance as well as more unsettling modern interpretations of the Chinese political atmosphere. In one dance piece titled “Our Story,” a teacher writes a proverb on the blackboard, at which point Chinese police wearing black shirts emblazoned with the hammer and sickle in communist red beat the teacher to death. Fortunately, the unlucky teacher is revived by the ever-present Chinese deities. While these overtly political messages were rather unexpected for first-time viewers, the more traditional dances were nothing short of a triumph.
In “Chopstick Zest,” inspired by a folk dance from the outer reaches of Mongolia, men danced, jumped and beat handfuls of chopsticks against their chests in perfect rhythm. “I hate these guys who make me look out of shape,” quipped Patrick Harvey, a board member of the Shen Yun organization.
The Koch Theater added much to the atmosphere. The red velvet seats were made even more sumptuous by the giant chandelier, which gleamed like a disco ball, and the crystalline lights planted within the balconies. “It reminds me of Swarkozy,” one guest mused. “Swarovski?” another sought to clarify. “Or Sarkozy?”
After the performance, guests ambled up the marble staircase for the after-party, chatting about the spectacle they had just taken in. Various coteries gathered around tall tables and a variety of Chinese delicacies were presented—including a particularly mouth-watering chicken dish. (We went back for seconds.) Revelers temporarily set down their wine glasses to throw back shots—of tea, that is. A tea-tasting station featured exotic leafy blends from Radiance Tea House.
The Shen Yun dancers also made their way to the reception. The female performers were readily identifiable in traditional Chinese garb, while the men wore suits and blended with the crowd. Although most of the troupe were born in China, the majority were raised abroad. Walking around the party, The Observer noticed several dancers prattling in perfect French with other guests.
We caught up with Kelly Rutherford, wearing a white Nanette Lepore dress, who raved about the performance. “We get so inundated with a sort of intensity and things that aren’t beautiful all the time. You know I think it’s so nice to see something that is almost innocent and beautiful and good dancing,” said Ms. Rutherford wistfully. “It made me crave Chinese food for sure,” she added.
Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell similarly expressed her appreciation of Shen Yun. “I’ve seen the New York City Ballet perform so many times,” said Ms. Bushnell. Shen Yun, however, was something wholly different. “The great thing is that you can really be transported,” gushed Ms. Bushnell.
Averell Fisk—grandson of former New York governor and U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union William Averell Harriman—chatted with his wife, Kirsten, about the hairy political issues surrounding Shen Yun. The Fisks were shocked that the Chinese authorities had attempted to stymie Shen Yun because of its ties to Falun Gong. “It’s just nice to put it to the Chinese a little bit,” said Mr. Fisk of attending the evening’s performance. “You think they’d be proud of their culture!” exclaimed Mrs. Fisk. “Remember the Cultural Revolution,” Mr. Fisk said in a knowing, muted tone. “They brainwashed everyone essentially,” concluded his wife.
Ms. Karan—whose nonprofit organization, Urban Zen, underwrote Shen Yun’s opening night—wore an arresting wooden necklace with large carved faces. “This is from Senegal, and these are from Haiti,” she said, gesturing to her many wooden bangles. “Part of Urban Zen is the preservation of culture and which it really links East and West together,” explained Ms. Karan.
Before long the younger set grew tired of standing around indoors and adjourned to the balcony. Dragging on cigarettes (is that even legal anymore?) socialites including Nora Zehetner, Zani Gugelmann and Alexandra Slatina chatted, fraternized and generally cordoned themselves off from the rest of the party.
After consorting for an hour or so, guests began to make their way back down the grand staircase where Jimmy Crystal gift bags were being distributed. The designer’s website doesn’t lie when it claims to “crystallize almost anything you can imagine”; the goodie bags included a crystal-covered letter opener. (We’ve been looking for one for ages!)
And so, after a week of highly favorable reviews and highly fashionable audiences, Shen Yun must once again bid farewell to New York. Provided they can evade Communist party censors, doubtless the company will be back next year. —Elise Knutsen