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Shen Yun performs at Toronto's Canon Theatre this weekend.

When the dancers of the Shen Yun Performing Arts company took to the stage at Toronto's Canon Theatre on Friday night, many in the audience might not have realized that their show is connected to the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

They also might not have realized that the troupe's traditionally inspired Chinese dance - reflecting the costumes and ideals of bygone Buddhist and Taoist periods - belies a heated, very contemporary war of words between Falun Gong advocates and the Chinese government. On the one side is a movement that claims persecution in its homeland, and which holds vigils outside Chinese embassies and consulates. On the other side is a government that sees an organization trying to undermine it (it has declared Falun Gong an illegal movement in China), and whose Toronto consulate, echoing China's official line, accuses Falun Gong of being "a cult."

In recent years, articles about the Shen Yun company in various mainstream media outlets, which have either questioned or asserted the political undertones of the troupe's dance spectacle, have been picked apart by those on both sides of the divide. So have some of the reviews of Shen Yun's shows - particularly the positive ones in The Epoch Times newspaper (which publishes in various languages and countries) and on New York-based New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), both of which are affiliated with Falun Gong.

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Shen Yun itself maintains an arm's-length distance from Falun Gong. Uncharacteristically for an international touring company, no one from Shen Yun was available for an interview regarding this story - those who speak English and can talk for the company were said to be on tour and out of reach. The troupe's website describes Shen Yun as a "non-profit organization that is independent of China's Communist regime and which seeks to revive the true, five-millennia-old artistic tradition of China that thrived before decades of suppression by the Chinese Communist party."

Still, Joel Chipkar, vice-president of the Falun Dafa Association of Toronto, which is presenting the production in Toronto, said in an interview: "It's not… a Falun Gong show. That's the issue." (The names Falun Gong and Falun Dafa are interchangeable; Dafa means universal law, while Gong refers to the actual spiritual practices, notes Chipkar.)

Chipkar says that, although Falun Gong is presenting the show, Shen Yun is an independent dance company - one that, he insists, restricts Falun Gong's presence at its shows. "This is not proselytizing for Falun Gong, as some reporters have said," says Chipkar. "Today, many productions use the arts to bring to light issues that face our world. And this is what makes these performances very powerful."

The dance company, which is based in upstate New York, runs three different touring groups and performs worldwide. As Chipkar explains, the show contains about 20 scenes, with English and Chinese hosts introducing the dances and songs. "Even if somebody doesn't know a lot of ancient Chinese culture or themes, they can easily view along," he says. "It appeals to everyone."

He likens the performance to The Sound of Music and its combination of light imagery and music with an undercurrent of menacing Nazism. "My issue with a lot of reporters that have written on the show," says Chipkar, "is that they walk into the theatre with a biased notion of what Falun Gong is already, because either they don't know enough about Falun Gong, or they have been kind of influenced by the one-sided stories - and they automatically believe that this is political, anti-China or Falun Gong propaganda, just because it chooses to use modern-day issues as part of its storyline."

Since 1999, the Chinese government has cracked down on the Falun Gong movement, which soared in popularity in China during the 1990s. It opposes the Shen Yun production, arguing that it directly promotes Falun Gong. In January, seven sold-out shows in Hong Kong were cancelled because several members of the company weren't granted visas, according to a Shen Yun press release.

"Falun Gong is a cult. It is an anti-China organization. Actually, anything referring to China, they are opposed to," says Huo Mingwu, a press officer with the Chinese consulate in Toronto. "Of course, our official position is quite clear. We strongly oppose this kind of performance. We hope that local people, especially politicians, not go, not watch that kind of false performance."

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He adds that the government hopes people will realize the connection between Shen Yun and Falun Gong and not fall for what he describes as "propaganda."

Posters have appeared in store windows throughout Toronto advertising the production. And while Falun Gong's name isn't featured prominently, it is listed on the show's promotion material and website, along with The Epoch Times and NTDTV.

For his part, Chipkar points to the many rules Falun Gong now must adhere to at the performances themselves. "[As]the presenters, the Falun Dafa Association must follow strict guidelines from Shen Yun: We cannot distribute Falun Gong materials to audience members. Nowhere in or out of the show can we talk to people about Falun Gong. We can't buy a booth, even if we wanted to, for the Falun Gong, inside the show. We cannot advertise in the program book. With regards to the proselytization, there is none."

Shen Yun ( performs Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., at Toronto's Canon Theatre.

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