In the past few months, if one was driving Route 95 in the vicinity of Philadelphia, it was hard to miss the many billboard advertising “Shen Yun: 5,000 Years of Civilization Reborn” emblazoned with an image of a female Far East Asian dancer in flight,” clearly promoting a dance oriented event. Nothing too unusual in that in a major metropolitan area. So we bought tickets for us and some friends for the March 5 matinee performance, held at the venerable Merriam Theater in the midst of the Fine Arts zone part of Broad Street (yes, in Philadephia).
The show began with introductions by co-presenters, a male of Western European descent and a female of Far East Asian descent, whereupon the curtain rose revealing a stage cloaked in waist high dry ice clouds and about 20 brightly costumed female dancers who began to gracefully glide about and whirl in tightly synchronized patterns in front of a digitally projected backdrop for about 5 – 10 minutes before the curtain dropped and the presenters came out to introduce the next dance routine. And so on. The dancing was expert and often acrobatic, the costuming eye-catching and colorful and the staging innovative with live action often being coordinated with the digital backdrop so that a dance could move towards the screen, hop off a dais that stretched from one side of the stage to the next and then appear on the screen to hop into lakes or fly off to heaven or what have you – a clever and well executed effect.
Many of the routines had little story lines – a soldier kills opponents in battles, witnesses the vanquished’s loved ones arriving to mourn over them, begs a monk who accompanies the mourners for forgiveness and is directed to a meditation cave where he resists various temptations to abandon the monastic life and eventually receives a vision of the hundreds of Buddhas and boddhisattva images that fill the cave coming to life. And then, came a story about young lovers who were members of the Falun Dafa being assailed by black-outfitted Communist thugs (their jackets were emblazoned with blazing red hammer and sickles emblazoned just in case the audience might be in doubt as to their identity), the male being dragged off to prison where he’s tortured, urged to denounce his faith, and his eyes plucked out when he refuses. Eventually he’s turned loose, runs into his girlfriend and other practitioners who evoke celestial female deities who restore his sight. Mmmm. We weren’t expecting that but it wasn’t too shocking coming Chinese expatriates. Then came solo vocal performances, with lyrics projected in Chinese and English, bemoaning the perfidy of our current age, suggesting that science and Godlessness are the culprits and stating that humans are in fact all visitors from Heaven searching for the Creator who is currently incarnate on the Earth. HELLO! After the intermission, the balance between fanciful, playful dance pieces and those with a marked religious or political angle shifted to the latter. As we left the theater, I noted a video crew off to the side buttonholing the departing audience members, soliciting testimonials.
Now, none of this seemed problematic per se, but… it did come as a surprise and we starting a-Googling and… kinda went down the worm hole of the history of Shen Yun Performing Arts and its founding by members of the Falun Dafa/Gong faith, in the earl 1990’s and its subsequent persecution by the Chinese government… and the religious movement’s response to said persecution. I’ll admit, I felt pretty clueless as I went from article to article reflecting on that fact that I was blithely unaware of this whole affair which has involved millions of believers, systematic persecution by the Chinese and a very sophisticated propaganda campaign in response.
Lemme tell ya — it appears fairly complex and I’m not going to cut your meat for ya, but here’s a range of links to get you started should you want to investigate: