A couple of weeks ago I attended a performance by Shen Yun Performing Arts -- “the world's premier classical Chinese dance company”. It was very well done – costumes, sets, a live orchestra (with both Chinese and “Western” instruments)... a very clever interaction between projected animation and the live performers... and the dances were very well choreographed, both aesthetic and athletic, and the performers looked like they enjoyed their work.
So far so good. Now, the show was produced, or sponsored, by the Greater Philadelphia Falun Dafa Association. If that rings a faint bell, it turns out that Falun Dafa is an alternative name for Falun Gong – the organization that has run into so much trouble in China lately. According to a Wikipedia article, “Falun Gong adherents overseas have responded to the suppression in China through regular demonstrations, parades, and through the creation of media outlets, performing arts companies...” etc. So yes, this is a persecuted group in China, and I don't want to get into all the complications as to why, only to speculate that as a source of spiritual teaching, it is in obvious conflict with communism, which – despite all of China's muscular show of capitalist-style energy – is still the official world view. Or, to put it more broadly, materialism is the official world view – and that includes both communism and capitalism.
So here is this show that, according to the ads, “can no longer be found in China today because many of China's best artistic traditions have been lost in recent decades.” Well... I was in China a year ago and saw plenty of traditional music and dance performances, so I think that's stretching it a bit. Promotion of traditional forms is certainly not the sole privilege of either side in any political conflict, and we've seen plenty of evidence of that over the years. (I always think of this Georgian performer who used to appear at a place in Georgetown (D.C.) back in the 1970s – his audience would be liberally peppered with both White Russians and Soviet Embassy personnel.) Yes, believe it or not, there are things that really do transcend politics – although it's easy to forget that in this day and age.
But to get back to the show – it was mostly music and dance, with some solo singing numbers done recital-style... and those lyrics had a marked mystical touch – nothing obviously political, but very tendentious in a way, as though some particular world view was being actively promoted (which it was). There was a definite eschatological feel to it all. More obvious were dance numbers which featured young Falun Dafa followers vs. the police (wearing symbols that vaguely resembled the Soviet hammer and sickle). And sure enough, the young adherents were eventually rescued through divine intervention – including by a giant blue-haired Buddha.
Another interesting angle was this: There was a cadre of young, attractive women circulating around the theater and in the lobby, carrying recording devices, asking people for their impressions of the show. Nothing wrong with that, right? But how often have you been interviewed while sitting in a theater seat during intermission? The whole thing, to me at least, started to border on the cultish; I felt like I'd stumbled onto the Chinese equivalent of a Scientology get-together. And I'm not accusing them of engaging in brainwashing – but the presentations were heavy-handed at times, and, I think, qualified as propaganda. (The Chinese authorities would certainly think so.)
What I find intriguing, in a way, is that this show is traveling all over the country unimpeded, while at the same time we're engaged in this chess game with China, with “human rights issues”, foreign policy, trade, and monetary issues on one side and our “sovereign debt” on the other. To cut to the chase – they haven't yet, as far as I know, demanded that this organization or its activities be suppressed over here. (Ridiculous, you say? Look at what happens to people and organizations that oppose Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.)
And it is a good show. And I do recommend that anyone who enjoys Chinese culture attend. Just be aware that this is also a political organization, and that they have an agenda – which may be perfectly commendable, but it's an agenda nonetheless, which goes far beyond mere entertainment.