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Shen Yun performance part dance, part politics


You've probably seen the lavish promotions during the past few weeks for Shen Yun, a Chinese dance troupe from New York that will be performing Tuesday at the Hult Center.

Shen Yun, says its presenter, is "a world's premier classical Chinese dance and music company. Based in New York, it seeks to revive the values of China's 5,000 years of culture before the Communist rule and provide audiences with an experience of sublime beauty."

What the promotions don't tell you is that Shen Yun is widely regarded as a propaganda arm of the conservative Chinese religious sect Falun Gong, which has been banned since 1999 by the government of China.

Also called Falun Dafa, the sect claims 100 million followers worldwide. According to Amnesty International, it has been brutally suppressed by the Chinese government, which has punished followers with torture and lengthy imprisonment.

The Shen Yun dance show, by many reviewers' accounts, mixes heavy-handed political theater - depicting, for example, the tasing of a Falun Gong woman and her child by Chinese government thugs - with mediocre dance.

Even some who liked the troupe's artistry were unhappy that Shen Yun's publicity does not make clear the religious and political aspects of the performance.

A 2008 tour in Britain produced reviews such as these:

"You could overlook the politics if the show was any good, but it is dated and sentimental, with comically bad compères (masters of ceremonies), laughably awful film projections and dance routines that would make panto producers blush," wrote Sarah Frater in the London Evening Standard.

"Any judgment of the piece's artistic merit seems beside the point, but it is a horribly Disneyfied version of the traditional Chinese culture it seeks to celebrate. ... The result is one of the weirdest and most unsettling evenings I have ever spent in the theatre," wrote Sarah Crompton in the London Telegraph.

"Even if you are sympathetic to the Falun Gong cause, there is something creepy about the evangelical tone with which this is delivered," wrote Judith Mackrell in the Guardian. "It is also made worse by the fact that the show's visual style is like a Disney production, with the cast dressed in gaudy, glittery updates of traditional costumes backed by scenes of soft-focus landscape created by computer animation."

In 2009, Toronto Star dance writer Susan Walker called the show "spectacularly tacky."

"Art it wasn't," she wrote. "The choreography was consistently banal, with the performers arranged in rows doing identical gestures. The dancers were under-rehearsed and unremarkable."

She called the show "so heavily laden with Falun Gong messages as to negate any pleasure the dancing and singing might have afforded."

An August 2010 performance in Buffalo, N.Y., drew this from Colin Dabrowski in the Buffalo News:

"Imagine what it might be like to watch a synchronized swimming team perform in front of a gigantic Windows 95 screen-saver. That should give you a pretty good idea of where Shen Yun ranks on the artistic merit scale. ... Through an overwhelming promotional campaign that featured smiling attendants stationed at kiosks in local malls, they duped thousands of people into paying outrageous sums of money to watch a half-baked advertisement for Falun Gong."

Yes, it's possible to find positive reviews of Shen Yun. Two years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle published an advance story about the show, written by Mary Ellen Hunt, that is quoted often in Shen Yun's promotional material:

"The show - which each year features new entries in a smorgasbord of vignettes - takes viewers on a visually dazzling tour of 5,000 years of Chinese history and culture via bravura displays of acrobatics and grand tales told through flourishes of Chinese classical dance. With hundreds of dancers in two dozen carefully designed, richly costumed pieces - everything from colorful handkerchief dances, Imperial-style dances in high platform shoes, drum dances, folk dances and wushu displays - it's a heady blend of the ancient and modern, of traditional Chinese instruments and their Western counterparts, and contemporary experiences expressed using the formality of Chinese classical dance." .....

Most of the troupe's positive press appears, though, in The Epoch Times, a publication run in New York by supporters of Falun Gong.
A system of spiritual meditation and physical exercise, Falun Gong was founded in 1999 by Li Hongzhi.

It has been criticized in the West for Li's opposition to homosexuality - in one speech he equates it with organized crime - and his bizarre notions about race and extraterrestrial aliens.

("Sexual freedom, which has mixed the human races and muddled human ethics, is absolutely forbidden by gods," Li says on the Falun Dafa Association website (FalunDafa.org). And about aliens: "They kidnap people to their planets, lock them in cages, and put them on display as animals. Many of Earth's people who have gone missing were taken by them.")

There is little question that Falun Gong leaders regard the purpose of Shen Yun as proselytizing.

In a 2009 speech transcribed on FalunDafa .org, Li praised the hard work by his followers to sell tickets to Shen Yun.

"But the good thing is, you're all clear that it is done to save people, and that selling a ticket equates to saving a person," he said. "So you're all able to balance these things just fine. And you won't be asked to do this forever.

"When Shen Yun Performing Arts' influence truly spreads widely throughout the world, all you will have to do is run an ad saying that Shen Yun is coming and people will flock to see them."

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