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Performance group wants apology from Calgary theatre

A performance by Shen Yun Performing Arts.

The New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts says it is wary about returning to Calgary's Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium after experiencing what it calls unprofessional and humiliating treatment by auditorium staff.

The group's presenter – the Falun Dafa Association of Calgary – has written a letter to Alberta's Minister of Culture and Community Spirit requesting, among other things, a written apology and invitation from Jubilee management if it hopes to stage the popular show at the venue again.

"We feel deeply ashamed that a world-class performance is being treated with such disrespect by a government-owned venue," reads the letter from Falun Dafa's Jeff Yang.

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The allegations are related to the April 8 and 9 performances during the company's annual Canadian tour. During the first performance on April 8 – Easter Sunday – a critical set change was messed up when the stage lights did not fade to black.

Instead, the stage was left illuminated, which meant dancers had to "scurry off the stage in full view of the audience," according to Mr. Yang's letter, which called it perhaps "the most severe professional lapse Shen Yun has encountered in over 100 theatres around the world."

Speaking from New York, where the company is preparing for a show at Lincoln Centre, company manager Vina Lee told The Globe and Mail: "It's a big mistake for our show. It ruined the whole show."

More maddening, she says, was the casual response from SAJA's stage crew, who sloughed it off, she says, with a simple "yep" and did not apologize.

"The attitude was very arrogant, rude and dismissive," says Jenny Yang, a volunteer with the Falun Dafa Association of Calgary.

The second incident occurred immediately after the final performance on April 9. A Jubilee worker accidentally opened the door of the loading dock that was being used temporarily as a quick-change area for a group of female performers. When the door was opened, there were five or six women revealed, in various stages of undress. One woman's shrieks were audible throughout the backstage area, according to Ms. Lee. She says that performer was half-naked when the door opened.

Again, it was the response more than the incident that was most upsetting. Ms. Lee says one of the Jubilee's workers could be heard laughing when the incident was reported to him.

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"It [was treated]like a joke," Ms. Yang says. "But this is a serious issue, especially to those young girls. This is humiliating."

Ms. Lee says there was ultimately an apology, after Shen Yun's production manager gathered the stage crew on the stage to express the company's concerns, but she felt the apology was insincere.

"I feel disrespected … and I just don't feel professionally we were supported by the theatre at all," Ms. Lee says.

Shen Yun was established in 2006 by expatriate Chinese artists. Its mandate is to "restore and revive Chinese traditional culture," which it says has been suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party. There are three touring companies, which travel internationally.

In Calgary, there have been other incidents that have concerned the group, including the installation of a safety net over the orchestra pit in 2010, and the posting of warnings that same year at theatre entrances advising that the show was violent and not suitable for children.

Katherine Huising, director of Jubilee Auditoria of Alberta, says she has not heard directly from Shen Yun or its presenters about the Easter weekend incidents, but was made aware of the situation on Friday by her staff.

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"We don't have these conversations in the media," Ms. Huising says. "What I would say to you is the Jubilee sees over 250 events every year and we're respected internationally for the quality of both the venue and the staff that work there."

She did acknowledge the lighting problem at one of the Sunday shows. "Was there a technical glitch? Absolutely … it's part of live theatre."

But Ms. Huising was reluctant to discuss specifics of the incidents, which were alleged to have involved a staff member singled out in the letter to the Minister, and she raised concerns about the accuracy of the allegations.

(Indeed, the name of the offending staffer provided in the letter to the Minister was incorrect, as Falun Dafa mixed up two SAJA employees with the same first name.)

The Minister's office referred inquiries to Ms. Huising, who said the situation would be resolved with the client internally.

"I always tell people: there's three sides to a story: they said, my staff said, and what really happened. And that's my job, is to do a full investigation of what really happened so we can learn from it and continue to serve our clients exceptionally well as we have in the past," Ms. Huising says.

"We need time to look into this and have these conversations."

Complicating the matter is the presenting organization, Falun Dafa. Also known as Falun Gong, the religious sect is banned in China. The Falun Dafa Association of Calgary claims the Alberta government had faced pressure by the Chinese consulate to cancel Shen Yun's performances in the past. Ms. Huising says she was not aware of any such pressure.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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