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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

jimmy

January 27th, 2010
1:43 pm

For those people who offended by message of persecution of Faun Gong in China, I suggest that you view the issue in a larger perspective, how about change Falun Gong to Buddhists, Christians, Tibetans. It just tells facts anyway. I admire the courage of Shenyun artists to reveal this tragedy happening in China (I can imagine how much pressure they have to face from Chinese Communist party). I often feel sad that major media choose to ignore this tragedy in China and appreciate that Shenyun brought up the matter to the people around the world. Besides the show is really fantastic, one can learn Chinese legend, costume, history, not just the entertainment. My Family enjoys the show. It is truly wonderful.

RJ

January 27th, 2010
1:05 pm

@Lidia

Neither the promotional materials nor the website for the Cobb Energy Centre (where I got my information for the show) mentioned the intent of the show. Thus, I was blind-sided– and even a cursory review of the comments of others will demonstrate I am not the only one.

(After the fact I saw that the brochure listed some regional Falun Dafa group as a sponsor. Have since learned that is a pseudonym for Falun Gong. Had I seen that, I’m not sure that would have been enough at the time to forewarn of what was to come. Really a pity that one is expected to do exhaustive research on a performing arts group– looking for the fine print deep on their website– to draw conclusions about the intent of the program.)

For the record, the Tibetan dance was one of very few bright spots in the performance. You will find in my comments I said “virtually” the entire program was imbued with Falun Gong ideology, and did not implicate the show in its entirety– simply the vast majority of it.

Lidia

January 27th, 2010
11:56 am

@RJ
Hi RJ, I have checked out the website for Shen Yun. It does mention that performers practice Falun Dafa (http://www.shenyunperformingarts.org/artists) I have seen the show before, though not this year. There were cultures shown that I had not seen before (like Tibetan dance, Xinjian dance, Yi dance and so on). These performances were purely cultural and did not promote Falun Gong, so I don’t think it’s fair to say the whole show is about Falun Gong. As for the dances about Falun Gong – there were 2 when I watched the show – they were showing the persecution of the group in China. It reminded me of Solzhenitsyn’s books, exposing the torture of Soviet prisoners of consience while it was still going on in Russia. In Russia, we respect Solzhenitsyn for having exposed communist persecution while it was still going on. I respect that kind of courage, and when I saw it in Shen Yun show I thought it was part of Chinese culture too. I did not think the dance scenes about persecution were making anyone practice Falun Gong. Thank you!

RJ

January 27th, 2010
11:23 am

@Alice

Missed it by that much…

The issue is not the message of the show. The issue I have consistently raised is the unwillingness of Shen Yun to plainly state that the show is a forum to promote the ideology of Falun Gong. I have made no judgements whatsoever on the message itself. (I did say the performance was mediocre, but, again, that is an accurate description and makes no reference to the ideology.)

It is evidently a purposeful strategy to deceive individuals into thinking they will see a celebration of Chinese culture when in actuality they will be subjected to what amounts to an indoctrination session. One can only theorize that the promoters of Shen Yun either realize their tickets sales would go down if they should candidly state the intent of the show, or the objective is to “ambush” unsuspecting patrons into hearing the plight of Falun Gong in hopes of engendering sympathy. No one seems willing to address the issue.

It should also be evident from my posts that my reaction was one of resentment at having been deceived by this subterfuge. No matter. I am on a personal campaign to contact media outlets in each U.S. city in which Shen Yun will perform in order to advise them of the true nature of the program.

I’ve already been called a Chinese spy and a liar. I would not be surprised to receive threats of physical violence from some “pacifistic” practitioners of Falun Gong. Will keep you posted!

Alice

January 27th, 2010
10:03 am

I’m surprised and a little disgusted that anyone would be so offended by the message in this performance. The dancing, choreography, costumes and music are beautiful, but equally important is the message portrayed. To want to suppress this is akin to the oppression and suppression the Chinese people have had to endure as long as their present form of government is in place. Thank God for their being in this country where there is still freedom of expression and religion.

The persecution of their religious ideals IS VERY MUCH a part of their TRUE history, and rather than criticize them for “spoiling” an otherwise pleasant experience, critics would do well to heed their message and learn something from it. On another level, it gives us all an opportunity to have meaningful discussions with our children regarding the lasting consequences from loss of freedom by politically corrupt and evil governments.

I for one applaud Shen Yun, not only for the quality of the show, but for their courage in telling a WHOLE story and not just one that would please the ever demanding political correctness crowd.

Lillian

January 27th, 2010
8:48 am

I was eager to find a Shen Yun DVD as a gift for my mother, hence replied to Ying’s message first.

Now back to the original questions posted by the original article. My answer is:

I maybe surprised but won’t be offended as long as the message itself is good, and I won’t expect the producer or presenter to tell me everything, because it would be unnatural and destroy half (if not most) of the fun: do you expect the producer or presenter of “Lion King” to put in their ads “by the way, our message is human beings, you are destroying too much of the nature”? Or “Cinderella” show producers to put a statement “kindness and hard working will be rewarded, sincereness and beauty will win loving heart and happiness”? Messages are to be found, and every audience may find different messages unique to only them — that’s the experience of art (or entertainment).

Do you rather have the producer or presenter of a concert to tell you in their ads how great and powerful their singer or band is, how unique their design or music is, how cool their setting or costume is, how well audience responded to their tour, or you’d rather have the producer or presenter to tell you in their ads or promotional material that ” we sing about true love are hard to come by, treasure it when you have it; We miss our lost family and friends to the wars; We miss the greenness in our home town before… I weep for my true love, she left me for the richer …” ?

Unless it is a fund-raising event or benefit concert, I don’t expect that the tell-all, and won’t be offended but happily surprised with any good messages that I found — particularly good messages that echo to my heart, I would even take it as a bonus a gift. On the other hand, if the message is “killing is the way to get power and win”, yes I would be offended regardless if I was told ahead of time!

What is entertainment without any message anyway? Random sounds and random jumps? Yelling, noises, or aerobics?

If someone is so concerned of going into a show, a concert, a movie or any entertainment with any message, it is sure is their own responsibility to research – and even that, I am not sure if his/her research would give him/her the true picture, because experience of art and message in art is such an individual thing.

If someone is so close-minded about receiving any message via show, concert, movie – the so called “entertainment”, I am wondering what kind quality of entertainment he/she get to experience in life, and how many opportunities of experiencing some greatest surprises of joys, inspirations, and entertainment (yes, entertainment) he/she would lose in life?

Mela Wu

January 27th, 2010
8:06 am

Hello, Ying,
First of all, let me express my sorrow in reading your message posted here, I do feel your pain. The pain of having a family torn apart is certainly overwhelming, though these days there are a lot of families fall apart for various reasons and this can sometimes result in making a wrong association and false conclusion without any intention to do so.
Since you stated that you have not watched the show yourself and did watch a DVD, then I understand that you and I are not talking about the same show. The show Shen Yun is so pure, beautiful and powerful, for people who appreciate true art, it is a sure treat.
Is there a possibility that some more communication and more understanding could be extended to the person you love, to your mother. From the jumped conclusion about the show, I could see that there are possibly other issues could be misunderstood about Fa Lun Gong.
Just a thought to share.

Lillian

January 27th, 2010
6:53 am

Ying: Where did you get the DVD? I searched up and down for it but could not get it anywhere — Shen Yun does not produce any DVD for their shows.

My family is from China too, I brought my mother who is in her seventies to see the show last year. She was in tears watching the show because she had never seen her own cultural being presented so beautifully. It made her feel really good and proud seeing so many people from so many different ethnic background responded so warmly towards the show too. She was very grateful to me for bought her the ticket (as a gift) and took her to the show.

I hence tried up and down for a DVD of show as another gift for my mom – I know she will be very pleased and couldn’t wait to see the smile on her face. But I could not find it. Shen Yun said that they do not produce DVD or even music CD for the show, and the local presenting companies said that they were not authorized to produce DVD either.
I would really appreciate a pointer from you.

Thanks!

By the way Ying, I did not see/hear Fa Lun Gong people calling you names, but seeing you calling them names in your message. Your mother, if she indeed become such a big fan for Fa Lun, (particularly with such strong opposing attitude besides her), must have her own reasons, right? If you indeed still love your mother, please consider not to call names to something she treasure like the way you did — that for sure would hurt her deeply.

If indeed people who watching the Shen Yun show are all big fa lun gong followers like you said, then wow! Fa Lun Gong is certainly more powerful and influential than I thought. :-)

Best regards.

George

January 27th, 2010
6:38 am

It is difficult to convince someone, from my point view shen yun show is best show ever saw.

Tysan Lerner

January 27th, 2010
6:23 am

Hello,
I do not know why your mother left your family, but I can tell you that my experience with Falun Gong has been the opposite. I am a divorced mother of two young children. My Ex left us when they were 2 and 4 years old. Since then, I have gotten re-married to a Falun Gong practitioner, like myself. We have been married for three years.

We both work hard to live according to the principals of truth, compassion, and tolerance, as taught to us in Falun Gong. We also work hard to try to live according to the principals we understand about being a good family member. We have the understanding that we should always think of others first, including those we are comfortable with. Therefore we have a very harmonious marriage life. It is very easy for us to resolve stressful situations when we turn to what Falun Gong has taught us. We understand that we should educate and raise our children well, and it is very clearly stated in Zhuan Falun that a practitioner should not be divorced because of Falun Gong.

I think that no one is perfect and that if someone follows a teaching that teaches them to live according to truth, compassion, and tolerance and then they act differently from what has been taught to them because of their own notions, excitement, etc. then that is their shortcoming and things may not work out very well for them and their loved ones due to their selfish actions. It does not make the teachings wrong.

As for Shen Yun. I am a professional dancer and having grown up in dance and the arts, I know that much dance and art has a very clear message. Look at Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham. They didn’t get incredibly famous by saying, “hey over here, I have a message!” They just came out with it. Many dance pieces have a message a story to tell. Shen Yun tells the story of Falun Gong, just as it tells stories of many historical figures of China. Plus, Shen Yun, as far as I have seen, is very open about its content addressing Falun Gong. It has no reason to hide it. Many of my friends and family (who are in all different fields, from TV production to Broadway production to sales and manufacturing to even a few NGOs) have gone to see Shen Yun and were incredibly happy to do so, often buying tickets for it in the following years. This has been my experience.