Dec 26, 2016

Shen Yun returns, offering artistry and a political message

Fresno Bee
DECEMBER 23, 2016

For the second time in a year, the nationally touring Chinese cultural show “Shen Yun” makes a stop at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre, this time with a new production. Here’s a rundown:

The premise. “Shen Yun” bills itself as a presentation of 5,000 years of Chinese culture in one night. The show blends traditional Chinese performing arts (dance, solo musicians and opera) and an orchestra (playing both Chinese and Western music) with technology, including a two-story animated backdrop. “It’s like seeing a symphony, a theatrical production and a movie at the same time,” a show representative told The Bee before the tour’s January performances.

The marketing. It’s slick and plentiful, with expensive wrap-around newspaper advertisements (including in The Bee), billboards and TV commercials publicizing the event in each city the tour visits. The marketing materials emphasize the artistry of the dancers, singers and musicians.

What you might not know. Those marketing materials, however, do not emphasize that Shen Yun is a tool to promote the Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) spiritual movement, which has been the object of repression in Communist China. There’s more than a hint on the website, however, with this explanation of the show’s origins: “The authentic Chinese culture Shen Yun presents can’t be seen in another show or even in China. There, the Communist Party sees traditional culture as a threat to its power and for decades has tried to destroy it. It nearly succeeded.”

How that message is delivered. In the January show at the Saroyan, scenes included contemporary references to police violence against Falun Gong members in China. The Bee’s Kathy Mahan praised the technical artistry of the performers, but she felt the show was repetitious and had some heavy-handed political undertones. UCLA professor James Tong told the Los Angeles Times: “The Falun Gong has a very well organized, managed and elaborate program of public relations, and Shen Yun is part of that.”

Critical reaction: The “Shen Yun” tour has garnered both pointed critiques and praise since its 2006 founding in New York. “Beneath all the colorful costume changes, pounding drumbeats and relentlessly repetitious acrobatic movements lies a political undercurrent that feels more like propaganda than straightforwardly presented cultural heritage,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted in 2015. Others focus on the artistry: “Though there is a distinctly political edge to the modern tales of oppression that are interspersed with ribbon dances and bowl dances, there is also much to fill the eyes and entertain,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 2016.

The takeaway: Many audience members never realize the political and spiritual connections of “Shen Yun.” Others do and don’t care, entranced by the show’s visuals and cultural impact. Still others feel that the Falun Gong angle is relevant and disquieting. It all adds another layer to what turns out to be more than just a dance performance.

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