Inside Shen Yun's delicate dance between politics and the stage
The New York performing arts company has been controversial since its inception. But in fact, politics weigh their show down
If your eyes have been open in the Greater Toronto Area these past few months, they've probably landed on a poster or billboard for Shen Yun. Set against a background of rich jade, the company's promotional material depicts a dancer caught mid-leap as swaths of orange fabric billow from her sleeves. The image has kept lookout over the Gardiner Expressway since December; it adorns TTC shelters and is tacked to coffee-shop walls and laundromat corkboards. Glancing at it in passing, you'd be more likely to note the serene effect of the colour scheme than suspect it represented anything politically contentious.
But the Shen Yun Performing Arts company has been a controversial entity since it was founded by Falun Gong practitioners in 2006. Based in New York, Shen Yun has grown into a massive organization with five troupes that tour the world simultaneously (the seven-city Canadian portion closed on Thursday night in Toronto, but you can count on it returning next year). The company is banned from entering, let alone performing, in China, where it's seen as the direct voice of the outlawed Falun Gong practice and condemned as anti-state propaganda. The website for the Chinese embassy in the United States discredits Shen Yun not just for its "tacky taste and low artistic standards" but as political tool preaching "cult messages." In a Globe and Mail interview from 2010, a press officer from Toronto's Chinese consulate urged the public not to attend the company's current show, calling it "false performance."
Shen Yun tells a different story, holding that its suppression is but one example of the authoritarian regime's crackdown on freedom of expression and religion. The company bills itself as a repository of 5,000 years of Chinese culture, which the Communist Party has tried to obliterate.
Intrigued by such grandiose claims to truth and lies – and concerned, more fundamentally, about the suppression of any artistic expression – I wanted to see Shen Yun for myself.
Before I attended the opening night in Toronto at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts, I tried to do a little research. Shen Yun's website is a polished and elaborate affair, replete with video interviews of the dancers and extensive background on the tenets of Falun Gong spirituality and the history of the movement's persecution. And yet there's no effective way to contact the company. I called the only listed number, a 1-800 hotline in the United States, and had my call returned somewhat mysteriously (via text) by the volunteer media contact at the Falun Dafa organization in Toronto (Dafa and Gong are interchangeable terms). I was informed that Shen Yun provides no media tickets and that the artists are not available for interviews.
Meanwhile, calling the press office at the Chinese consulate took me to a full voicemail inbox. I was eventually asked to send an interview request to a hotmail account called "torontochina2011." My request was declined, but the consulate did send me links to negative reviews of Shen Yun's previous shows, including a thread of one-star pans from Yelp.com.
The Four Seasons Centre, with over 2,000 seats, was virtually sold-out on opening night. Flipping through the program, I found full-page greetings from Governor-General David Johnston and Toronto Mayor John Tory. While the mayor limits his remarks to congratulating the company for bringing their performance to Toronto, the Governor-General actually treads towards critical commentary, crediting Shen Yun for their "creativity and grace."
As the curtain fell on the two-plus hour performance, I'd say he's half-right.
I certainly saw technical grace in Shen Yun's program, which consisted of 17 short dance pieces and two live-music performances. Classical Chinese dance is a highly regimented and athletic form that demands a limberness and flexibility that exceeds what's required, even, of classical ballet. The tenor is more gymnastic, with legs that stretch so high they create hyper-extended lines, and acrobatic tumbles that include aerial flips and complex split-leaps. The dancers not only rise to the challenge of this athleticism, but also find the form's characteristic fluidity. In Chinese dance, the arms and hands move with distinct ripples, creating a dreamy, watery effect. The ensemble work, of which there's plenty, is technically uniform and unfailingly synchronized. There's no doubt this is an immaculately trained and rehearsed group of artists.
But creativity is a tougher term to define, other than to say it suggests creating something that wouldn't otherwise exist and, hence, relies on the application of imagination. It's exactly what the evening lacked for me, both in content and structure. The show was hosted by two bilingual masters of ceremony, a man in a suit and a woman in an evening gown, who smiled with an eerie, children's-show unflappability and introduced every work with synopses and explanations. Audience members who like their art to require a little emotional or intellectual unpacking might have felt short-changed by these tidy, instructional précis.
Even forgiving this kind of didacticism, the show's ability to provide any real immersion into the atmosphere of the Han dynasty or the spirit of Tibetan drummers was undermined by its own production values. Each work was performed in front of a huge screen that depicted a high-beam computer-generated image of waterfalls, mountain ranges or temples. The preferred gimmick for entrances and exits, used repeatedly in over half the pieces, was to have the dancers appear first as computerized figures soaring through these cartoonish landscapes before they materialized as fully-formed humans onstage. The effect was more Vegas than ancient, and any subtlety in the choreography of a Mongolian bowl dance or Song dynasty folk number was swallowed by this flashiness upstage. This problem was echoed in the colour schemes; dazzlingly hued costumes were consistently subdued by having the same busy colours blazing on the background screen.
Then came the overtly political pieces. The first one, A Child's Choice, began with a group of dancers dressed in school-type uniforms as they performed the tai-chi-like exercises of Falun Gong practice. Suddenly, thugs wielding clubs storm onstage–we know they're communists because of the red hammer-and-sickle insignia on their backs – and beat the peaceful practitioners, leaving them for dead. The sound of a wailing baby blares from the speakers and the story develops into an orphan narrative: the daughter of killed practitioners is reunited with the Falun Dafa years later and welcomed into their community. On the upstage screen, the clouds part and a Buddha-like figure materializes in the distance. The MCs proceeded to tell us that the piece is based on real events, and that the persecution of the Falun Dafa continues today.
In Boundless Compassion, the narrative gets even stranger. Falun Dafa practitioners going about their morning exercises are again killed by communists with clubs. The screen depicts a modern cityscape where there's a sudden explosion of mushroom-cloud proportions. As skyscrapers and neighbourhoods crumble into dust, a godlike figure appears in a halo of white light. The dust dissipates and the screen becomes saturated in rings of gold chroma. The dead Falun Gong practitioners come back to life, instantly resurrected.
We're left scratching our heads a little, assuming that this posturban, postmaterialist millenarianism is a central teaching of the Falun Gong practice. The question is: Why is it a part of Shen Yun's program? It's hard to put your finger on the difference between art that deals in politics and art that espouses a way forward; Boundless Compassion, with its industrial apocalypse from which only Falun Gong adherents are saved, might well have crossed that line. The possible tremors of evangelism were corroborated by the musical solo that preceded this piece. Tenor Tian Ge sang about the need to seek out Dafa followers for deliverance to heaven. The religious lyrics appeared in giant print in Mandarin and English on the screen behind him; they're also printed in the program. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being instructed on what to do.
Near the end of the evening, Leeshai Lemish (the male MC) reminded the audience that while Shen Yun tours annually, there's a brand-new program every year. "So if you've seen it once," he said, still smiling fervently,"you haven't seen at all." But having "seen it all" was exactly how I felt after this long, tiresome evening in which the pieces felt so similar, so beholden to the same production values and set on achieving the same Disneyfied effect, that one became indistinguishable from the next. More troubling is that the unsettling religious-political content isn't advertised on any of the billboards. There was a sense of having been lured by the promise of lost traditional art, only to have the Falun Gong's proselytizing snuck in between the scenes.
The persecution of the Falun Gong has been well-documented by human-rights organizations; this is a population with important stories to tell. But good art is rarely born out of desire to manipulate popular opinion. If making art is, in fact, what Shen Yun aspires to do, then it needs to focus on the difficult, unquantifiable work involved in that. There's incontestable talent among these dancers and the company has a skilled and elaborate orchestra that boasts both classical Western and Eastern instruments. But as it stands, Shen Yun feels gauchely politically motivated – a fact that many audience members might not have known when they bought their expensive tickets.