For most American Jews, the affinity for Chinese culture doesn’t usually extend beyond playing Mahjong and ordering kung pao chicken on Christmas Day. But for Leeshai Lemish, a native of Columbus, Ohio, who was raised in Israel, it’s been a lifelong passion.
“I just fell in love with the [Chinese] language. I really wanted to know more about the culture,” says Lemish, who serves as an emcee of the classical Chinese dance company known as Shen Yun Performing Arts.
Shen Yun will give four performances Jan. 26-28 at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.
Born to an Israeli mother and a California native father, Lemish’s parents met in the Jewish state during the 1970s. They married and moved to Ohio to pursue their doctorates. When Lemish turned 5, his family moved to Israel, with occasional returns to the United States for sabbaticals in Philadelphia and San Francisco.
After serving in the Israel Defense Forces for three years, Lemish returned to California to “play baseball and go to college.” But an Asian studies class at Pomona College in the Los Angeles suburb of Claremont completely changed his life.
Lemish eventually became fluent in Chinese, although not as quickly as he would’ve liked. “They say Hebrew’s the hardest language,” he says. “Chinese was harder for me. Maybe if I’d learned it from birth, it might have been easier. It’s so different. Every word is a little drawing. I’m terrible at drawing, but I really enjoyed the concept behind it, the richness of the language.”
Radio City Jitters
In college, Lemish had a friend who managed a group of Chinese artists performing at the annual Claremont Dragon Boat Festival. “They asked me to host it,” Lemish says. “At that time, it was mostly a Chinese audience for a Chinese holiday. We would get up there, and I’d crack some jokes in Chinese and improvise a little bit.”
To his surprise, Lemish says, “It was a lot of fun. People really enjoyed it.”
The following year, he says the production grew but “by then I was in London,” pursuing a master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics.
“It happened to be winter break and they were going to perform at Radio City [Music Hall] in New York City. They said, ‘Hey, we saw a video of you doing this in L.A. Can you come and host the performance in New York?’”
The Radio City experience, he says, was daunting, to say the least. “When you go onstage, it’s quite the thing,” Lemish says. “There’s a five-ton curtain that comes down and sweeps behind you.” Despite his initial jitters, Lemish says he found the experience “really exciting. We did three shows that weekend. I started liking it.”
From that performance in 2006, the touring production company began coalescing into a more official capacity. “It wasn’t called Shen Yun yet — it was called Divine Performing Arts,” says Lemish. The show mainly employed Chinese artists living in the West.
“It mostly started like a Chinese New Year show, an alternative to what the Chinese embassies and consulates were putting on. The official embassy performances were very, ‘Isn’t the communist party great?’ So the idea was, ‘Let’s put on our own show and celebrate traditional Chinese culture as it once was.’”
That summer, when the company had auditions for the emcee position, Lemish tried out and won the role he’d initiated.
“In the early days, we would go to different cities and there would be local artists jumping in. There would be ballet and other stuff,” he remembers. Shen Yun evolved when the group decided that “classical Chinese dance would be the main art form. The idea was that this is something that’s distinctly Chinese.”
As the show became more Chinese, the audience grew broader than its initial audience of Chinese festival-goers. “Our audience is pretty much a representation of the local demographic,” says Lemish. “There are still Chinese people who come, but I’d say now it’s maybe about 10 percent.”
It Never Gets Old
Chinese dance is a “comprehensive and systematic art form” that isn’t understood well in the West, Lemish says. Like ballet, “it’s got its own system of training, its own requirements for posture, its own aesthetic and its own history,” he says. “It’s a very athletic art form. It’s expressive and contains in it a lot of the symbolism and inner substance of the culture and what it’s been through during different dynasties.”
Shen Yun presents ethnic and folk dancing styles that are part of traditional Chinese dance. Costumes, Lemish says, “reflect the attire of different dynasties, even the attire in stories and legends, and the mythical creatures.”
The whole performance contains “20 or so vignettes,” Lemish says. The emcee’s job is to “bridge the gap between what the audience knows about the culture, which we’re assuming is not necessarily a whole lot, then get out of the way and let the dancers do their work. Each show has two emcees — a man and a woman. There are five people like me [in the production] — caucasians who speak Chinese.”
Since he’s been with the company from its first year – and even before – Lemish says he is “very involved” in writing the scripts. Today, Shen Yun has five groups that tour the globe simultaneously.
“We just added the fifth company last year so we can keep up,” Lemish says. Around 80 people comprise the company of dancers, singers, emcees and orchestra, as well as the crew.
This year, Lemish, who lives in upstate New York, is traveling with the U.S. touring group. His favorite place to go, however, is Taiwan.
“In Taiwan, we’ll perform six weeks or so, maybe nine or 10 performances per week, all sold out,” Lemish says. “We go to eight or nine different cities. People relate to the performance in a different way there because they understand more layers of meaning in the show. … They may remember their grandparents telling them these stories in their youth. We get tourists from China who fly over to see it. Actually, a majority or a large contingent of the audience [in Taiwan] is from China.”
Lemish says he’s “hopeful” the show will someday be able to tour China. This March, Shen Yun is headed to Israel for first time. “My family there is thrilled,” Lemish says. “I hope it becomes a tradition.”
Despite the rigors of touring, Lemish says he lives for the show, particularly the curtain calls. Because of the way the show is lighted, Lemish doesn’t see the audience “until an encore or curtain call. Then, I get to see all the people, how much fun they’re having, their enthusiasm. You feel this connection with the audience.”
“That is my daily high,” he says. “That never gets old.”
Erica Rimlinger is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.