Generally speaking, I have a sense of what to expect at a show. But the sum total of my advance knowledge of Shen Yun was derived from the classical Chinese dance ensemble’s flashy advertisements, with dancers who resembled pink orchids.
So I expected to see lovely costumes and precise, synchronized dance routines.
I did not expect to see Chinese Communist thugs torturing members of a religious sect.
As I quickly discovered during last Saturday’s matinee performance at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts, Shen Yun’s agenda is not just about showcasing “5,000 years of civilization reborn,” as its advertisements proclaim. Such advertisements, while not necessarily false, are certainly incomplete.
Shen Yun is as much about propaganda, politics and proselytizing as it is about pretty costumes.
Shen Yun Performing Arts was founded as a non-profit in 2006 in New York by Chinese-born expatriate adherents of Falun Dafa, a modern spiritual/religious practice that first emerged in China in the 1990s and now claims millions of followers.
To its adherents, Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong, offers the true path to enlightenment and salvation in a doomed modern world. The Shen Yun program described Falun Dafa as a “meditation discipline with the spiritual teachings of truth, compassion and tolerance.”
The official Falun Dafa web site proclaims it “an advanced practice of Buddha school self-cultivation” that is “based on the very laws which underlie the development of the cosmos.”
Detractors liken Falun Dafa to a cult. Chinese authorities view it as a threat and have been accused of perpetuating extensive persecution and torture of Falun Dafa followers.
Not just a pretty face, then, Shen Yun also functions as a stealth Falun Dafa counter-intelligence initiative and goodwill ambassador.
None of which I and probably most other attendees realized.
The Shen Yun troupe that staged three shows last weekend in New Orleans is one of five companies of 75 or so dancers and musicians that tour the globe simultaneously. The curtain rose to reveal a breathtakingly beautiful scene. A billowing blanket of mist covered the stage. A dozen or so smiling young women were arrayed in the mist. An LED screen filled the entire digital backdrop with a beatific scene of ancient China.
The next two-plus hours, divided by an intermission, featured a series of similar scenes and skits acted out with music and dance. The Shen Yun orchestra, a blend of Western and traditional Chinese instruments, provided a sweeping soundtrack to the fluid movements of the dancers.
Following each vignette, two Chinese emcees, Oliver and Nancy, would emerge from the wings to narrate. Oliver spoke mostly in English; Nancy spoke mostly in Mandarin Chinese. Even their “spontaneous” banter seemed rigidly rehearsed.
Much of what they introduced were straightforward displays of traditional Chinese dance, with its tumbles and leaps. There was a “Hmong Ethnic Dance” involving jingling silver jewelry, and a Mongolian folk dance with bundles of chopsticks.
Dancers swooped their garments’ long, billowing sleeves in a striking segment called “Han Dynasty Sleeves.” They twirled and tossed brightly patterned squares of cloth in “Soaring Handkerchiefs.” Accompanied by a pianist, a woman played an erhu, a traditional, two-string Chinese instrument that sounded like a violin.
In a nifty special effect, performers climbed a short staircase along the bottom of the large LED screen backdrop, then leaped below the stairs as their animated Doppelganger popped up onscreen to fly and soar about. The animated figure would then “land” as the flesh and blood performer emerged again.
Most backdrops depicted scenes of ancient or rural China, consistent with the “5,000 years of civilization” promise of the show's advertisements.
It was somewhat disconcerting, then, when a modern cityscape appeared on the backdrop.
But not nearly as disconcerting as what followed.
Oliver, his voice modulated with concern but still pleasant, warned that the next scene was based on true events still taking place in modern China.
In a skit titled “Unprecedented Crime,” two happy Falun Dafa followers got married in a park. Suddenly, Communist Chinese enforcers in black karate uniforms rushed in and started beating people. The unconscious groom was carried away.
The video backdrop shifted to the interior of a prison cell with blood on the walls. The groom’s captors tried to force him to renounce Falun Dafa. He’s shocked with an electric cattle prod, and convulses. A character in medical scrubs stepped up and thrust another prod at the groom’s eyes. The scene went dark.
The audience next saw the groom begging in the park, his blinded eyes covered by bandages.
Clearly we’re not in the Han Dynasty any more.
Following the torture scene, an operatic female soprano sang in Mandarin in praise of Falun Dafa. The English lyrics appeared on screen and in the program: “We await the Creator who will spare us/Humanity now takes a ruinous course/Let not modern ideas and ways take you astray/Let not God’s ways be forgotten.”
In the show’s second half, a male tenor in a tux with tails sang more Falun Dafa philosophy in operatic Chinese:
“We are practitioners of Dafa/Out of a shared sense of mission/and a desire to save all lives/we seek to awaken memories of the soul and bring awareness that leads to Heaven.”
He continued, “Humanity now takes a perilous course/Modern thought and values lead us astray/But we musn’t stray from God’s ways.”
He concluded with a nod to the coming apocalypse — “the final days, once foretold, now come to be” — that set up the show’s final scene.
Oliver introduced “The Divine Renaissance Begins” with a promise that, though all might seem lost, there was still hope for salvation.
Onstage, a cluster of drab, disheveled “modern” students slouched around the stage, staring at their smartphones, apparently devoid of emotion or soul. A contrasting group of shiny, happy, brightly attired Falun Dafa students cavorted merrily.
But then the corrupt, evil, black-clad “bad ninja” returned. They beat down the bright and happy students.
Suddenly, a cataclysm struck the city on the screen behind them; the ninja fled. Onscreen, a deity, both Christ-like and Buddha-esque, descended from heaven, radiating yellow light. The grateful students dropped to their knees and bowed their heads in supplication.
The savior had arrived; the day was saved.
Thank you, and good night.
Shen Yun strictly forbids photography and, for obvious reasons, doesn't play up the show's political and religious content. The only hint on flyers for the New Orleans dates was the phrase “presented by Southern USA Falun Dafa Association” in tiny print. A 30-second Shen Yu promotional video offered a brief glimpse of the black-clad thugs with a voiceover describing a show “so powerful, it changed how you saw the world.”
It certainly changed how I saw Shen Yun.
The final curtain call last Saturday afternoon featured all three-dozen or so performers, smiling and waving. Oliver bid the audience a pleasant farewell, with a promise to see us all again next year with a new show.
Next time, I'll know what to expect.