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Surprised by the politics in shows like Shen Yun?

ShenYun12(2) (Small)

At Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Chinese performnace troupe Shen Yun featured drummers, dancers and propaganda that surprised some audiences. Some were OK with the message, but some were offended.

In the days since Shen Yun Performing Arts, the Chinese drum and dance troupe, left Atlanta to move onto the next stop on its perpetual tour, conversation continued to rumble about the shows they’d performed at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Some loved the performance, but commenters on Inside Access were upset by the Falun Gong politics of the show, “subtle as a taser shot to the noggin,” the AJC review said. It’s not that commenters necessarily disagree or deny that persecution has taken place in China. They were surprised to see it — especially a few violent scenes,  one involving a taser and another where a mother and child are beaten — in a show promoted as a music-and-acrobatic spectacular

Wrote Marilee Coughlin:

While the dancers are fabulous, and the costumes are gorgeous, I felt like I was at a revival or brain-washing session. … it was billed as a family show, but I question whether children should see a show where a mother and child are beaten by black-shirted men and the mother dragged off stage, apparently dead – then on the garish screen, she can be seen “ascending” accompanied by monks. Creepy sums up parts of the show quite well.

Local Falun Gong groups sponsored the show, but people I’ve heard from said it wasn’t adequate warning that politics might enter into a performance touted as family friendly. The show has taken a drubbing in international press, but AJCer Howard Pousner talked with several audience members who weren’t offended by the message, but they weren’t expecting it either. (You can read his entire story, “Many Atlantans OK with Chinese dance trouple’s politics.”) Several said they were fine with it: they wanted to know the other side of the story.

Here’s what another commenter, KJ, had to say:

My recommendation for the show’s creators.. [sic] If you want to focus on the message and political struggle, do it. The world would write rave reviews about a play or show that took an issue straight on. You probably couldn’t do the show in China or that would be the last show, but I believe the rest of the world prefers an “in your face” approach. State your message and stir it up.

I asked for a response from the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre’s PR agency, and received this statement from J. Barkley Russell on behalf of the local presenting organizations, not Cobb Energy Centre itself:

On behalf of the presenting organizations, we acknowledge the concerns expressed by some attendees at the Shen Yun performances regarding the sensitive content in certain sections of the show. As in years past, our brochures, window posters, website and press releases disclosed the show’s presenting organizations, New Times Cultural and Education Center, Inc. (NTCEC) and the Southeast US Falun Dafa Association—they have presented the show since it began appearing in Atlanta, four years ago.

In the future we will consider adding information to our materials that references the show’s content. We hope this has addressed your concerns.

I didn’t see this show, but in the commercials, billboards, and even the press materials, I didn’t see anything explicit about the show’s point of view, except for a passing reference about Chinese traditions before Communism.

On my own, I would have stayed to watch. Reporterly curiosity means I sit through a lot of things the surprise me, whether they delight or horrify. But it’s entirely different to see a show for work than to see a show with friends or family.

I wonder how common an experience this is. The closest situation I can recall is an early screening of “Million Dollar Baby.” The the mood in the theater changed as the movie became less about boxing and more about — surprise! — assisted suicide.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience on this. Have you been surprised or offended by an unexpected political message in art, whether on stage, in the movies or elsewhere? What responsibility do organizations and venues have to tell audiences beforehand? Should audiences be expected to do their own digging?

For instant updates, follow @insideaccess on Twitter.

79 comments Add your comment

Sara Chan

August 29th, 2010
9:32 pm

I bought my tickets at the mall for the 8/21/10 show, where I was told it was going to be a beautiful show about Chinese dance and culture, and that my children and elderly mother would enjoy it. I was NOT told it was sponsored by the local Falun Gong. And I didn’t think I would have to do research when purchasing dance show tickets.
The traditional Chinese dancing was ok, but I didnt expect was to be sitting through numerous Falun Gong songs and to see a dance piece where bad Chinese communists beat and kill a Falun Gong mother in front of her child. How is this considered traditional Chinese dance? I was half expecting more bad Chinese communists to break into the Tibetian peace dance piece that followed it.
I would have walked out of the show, except that I paid almost $500 for all our tickets and felt obligated to stay for our money’s worth!! I was fuming for the remainder of the show. Hard to enjoy anything in that kind of mood.
Shen Yun should definitely stop misleading people into seeing a show that is really a Falun Gong show. I don’t appreciate being blindsided (not to mention PAYING that amount of money to be blindsided). I could have gone to a really great Broadway show for the same price. Unless you intend of giving the FG group a large donation, do something else with your time and money.

Earl

June 28th, 2010
11:21 pm

The promotional text at the Providence (RI) Performing Arts Center’s web site seemed promising:
“Shen Yun Performing Arts presents classical Chinese dance and music in a lavishly colorful and exhilarating show. Its masterful choreography ranges from grand imperial processions to legions of thunderous drums, with gorgeously costumed dancers moving in stunning synchronized patterns.
Spectacular visuals take you to another world, with blossoming landscapes and celestial palaces appearing on beautiful animated backdrops. Groundbreaking music seamlessly combines the best of the East and West, giving each dance an unmistakable flair.
Ancient legends of virtue and modern tales of courage are brought to life by over a dozen dances and songs, making for one extraordinary, uplifting, and unforgettable experience.”
- Being curious about Chinese culture and dance, we bought tickets and took in the show Sat night (June 26). I suppose I should have done more research on the ensemble. Sure, there were some colorful moments of dancing, but there was also a pair of emcees introducing each number with stiff and amateurish attempts at humor. There was a political agenda underlying the whole show on behalf of the Falun Gong which was never mentioned in the advertising, and plenty of proselytizing for the show’s belief in Falun Dafa, all reinforced by cheesy animations projected on a big screen and song numbers with awkward lyrics that ironically seem to take after the style of heavy handed Communist indoctrination. Anybody bringing young kids would have been upset by the scenes showing parents being beaten or tasered by goons.
- Now I have no problem with political dissent of any kind, and as a performing artist I completely believe in freedom of expression. Shen Yun absolutely has the right to present anything they wish, and they have a right to their beliefs. But I do object to the lack of candor and honesty in advertising the specific content and nature of this show, and as a result Shen Yun, PPAC, and other arts centers around the country do a disservice to Chinese dissidents. We nearly walked out at intermission, but decided to give the thing a chance; I wish in retrospect we had left and spent more time at the Waterfire down the street. Had I know what we were really in for, I would have never bought tickets. I can get propaganda online for free.

Jane

May 30th, 2010
4:48 pm

I was taken to this show last year by an acquaintance, who promised we would spend the evening watching an enchanting performance of traditional Chinese dances. I was appalled and deeply offended at being subjected to virtually non-stop falun gong propaganda until I walked out at the intermission.
Although I know next to nothing about traditional Chinese dance, I can confirm that this show has attained a high level of kitsch and poor taste. Clothed in garish colors, the dancers were capable of little more than synchronized movement. The tenor and soprano introduced a jarring note as they extolled the virtues of falun dafa. The climax came when black-suited thugs popped out and murdered a peace-loving family in the park.
I find it highly insulting that falun gong deceives people in order to part them from their money (the tickets are not cheap) and force them to watch their agitprop. How different are their methods from those of the CCP they so detest?
By the way, FG sockpuppets, I deplore the persecution and other crimes perpetrated by the Chinese government against all individuals and groups.

Sue

May 28th, 2010
10:47 am

Just watched this production. To be honest, even without the strong religious emphasis, the quality apart from a few segments was pretty bad. For the prices these guys are charging, my tickets were over a 100 bucks each, they need to lift their game… by alot! I would definitely not recommend this to anyone.

BTW this thread seems to have gone way off track. The obvious FLG supporters/trolls should go discuss your ideology somewhere else, this is about the quality/value of the production.

eve

May 20th, 2010
8:52 pm

This is one of those arguments that will never have a conclusion. You can never convince Christains that God doesn’t exist. Vise versa, you can never convince a scientific person that God created everything.

JC Catiller

May 10th, 2010
12:00 am

I am so glad that I found this thread. I saw the advertisments, picked up the brochures, saw a preview video and even spoke with a spoke person for the show at the mall. Everything was about the amazing, inspiring, costumes music and dance. Not one menion of watching the portryal of a beating of a mother and child at the end. It is one thing to present a show ss “moving”, “shocking” or “educational” or even as political commentary, but be honest about it. I would have been extremely angry to have shelled out $75 apiece for myself, my wife and my son expecting to see something escapist, fun and uplifting, only to have it all end with a murder. There are other shows featuring the amazing Chinese dances, costumes and acrobatics, without the heavy handed and violent “social commentary”.

Omid

April 30th, 2010
10:49 am

Well, Shen Yun is the best show I have ever seen. And whats wrong with there being some information about the persecution of Falun Gong in China? People need to see what is happening in China, so I think it was only natural for them to include it. Also I dont think there is anything wrong with Falun Gong, Falun Gong is certainly not a cult. It is actually a very good practice that teaches people that one should do good and follow truth, compassion, forbearence. Whats wrong with that? Nothing. Its only the chinese communist party that calls falun gong a cult, most of us in the western societies know that falun gong is not a cult and is actually a good practice. Thanks shen yun and thank you falun gong!

LR

February 15th, 2010
12:54 am

@Wanxia and others

By accident, I ran into this comment stream when I tried to find news from Winter Olympic games on the mix Chinese figure pair in the short program performed tonight. They did great and I wish they can finally get an Olympic gold medal after 18 years’ hard pursue.

I feel an urge to say something after I saw so many negative comments on China. Some are very narrow focused or one sided (for example, wanxia’s comments on teaching only the standardized simplified chinese script). I would like to ask wanxia how many different major kinds of Chinese script in 6,000 years of Chinese writing culture. I just don’t see it is practical to teach kids of more than ten major kinds of Chinese script in 6,000 years of Chinese writing culture. Probably only some historians will know a few at best. Something changes no matter which party rules in China. The reality is that you porbably won’t hear the most Chinese people’s opinion on their life in China since they are happy and busy with their life. They are silent majority.

Ying, I am so sorry to hear your story. One of my friend has a similar situation. It is very hard to change an adult’s mind including all the people left a comment here. My heart and pray goes to you and your family.

As a person grew up in China, my extended family and I went through some wide ranges of experiences. Some can be considered as an ultimate family tragedy (great uncle was prosecuted to death for no real wrong doing during the culture revolution); some can be labled as a hardship (father was sent to camp because he was a scientist during the culture revolution when I was four years); and some can be seen as a success and progress (both my parents were able to go to an univeristy and got a highly successful career not only because of their talents and hard work but also ccp’s policy to offer kids in poor or remoted villages an education opportunity which it would be impossible before the ccp’s rule); finally I personally have benefited the recent China open policy and came to US to enjoy even broader opportunities.

In Chinese words, everything has a Ying and a Yang. I wish China can continue improving significantly in the future even speaking of ccp’s policy. This will benefit most of billions of Chinese people. I appreciate your care and interests in China and Chinese people. Today is Chinese New Year and I wish everyone a happy new year!

wanxia

February 14th, 2010
9:39 pm

the SY show was great, even though the political message at the end was not quite subtle. in that respect, hollywood does it better when it wants to, as in avatar… so, there is room for improvement for FLG’s artists. still, i applaud the artistic accomplishment of the SY group; it is not easy to put together such a big group of very fine traditional chinese dancers overseas, but they have certainly done it well. it is not like, say, a china mainland group which does an overseas tour – they can gather the finest performers from 1.3 billion people to generate the wow effect – something they did in the olympics opening ceremony in 2008. the depth of talent in the SY group also shows how many chinese artists have turned against the chinese communist party (ccp).

talking about deception, the ccp’s recent opening of “confucius institutes” all over the world is a deception on a global scale. it is little more than a language institute, and it teaches only the standardized simplified chinese script, something that was invented during ccp rule and in use for less than 60 years, compared to 6,000 years of chinese writing culture. similarly, the institute teaches not quite chinese culture, but a selected part of it through ccp lenses. while SY can be criticized for not being subtle enough in its political message, the nature of beijing’s global “cultural activities” should be thoroughly exposed by all truth-loving chinese and non-chinese alike.