Shen Yun

The Guardian/February 25, 2008

The timing of Shen Yun's appearance in London could not be more interesting. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, venues around Britain are hosting China Now, a showcase for the country's contemporary art. In marked contrast, Shen Yun is a programme of traditional dance, mime and music, performed by exiled Chinese artists based in New York. The tenor of this production is deeply nostalgic and deeply ex-pat. Not China Now, but China Past, or China As It Ought to Be.

We are introduced to the material through comperes Mei Zhou and Leeshai Lemish, who deliver bright, smiling links between the show's 20 items. Useful details are supplied concerning narrative sources and ethnic style, but what fundamentally emerges from this joint show-and-tell is the production's mission to stage a protest against China's communist regime.

The majority of the cast (members of the Divine Arts organisation) turn out to be practitioners of the oppressed spiritual movement Falun Gong. As the comperes make clear, not only are most of the numbers slanted to embody the movement's creed (truthfulness, compassion, tolerance), but some of them explicitly dramatise scenes from its struggles within mainland China, with background images magically depicting the swelling multitudes of Falun Gong followers and choreographed conflicts showing heroic battles with brutal party goons.

Even if you are sympathetic to the Falun Gong cause, there is something creepy about the evangelical tone with which this is delivered. It is also made worse by the fact that the show's visual style is like a Disney production, with the cast dressed in gaudy, glittery updates of traditional costumes backed by scenes of soft-focus landscape created by computer animation.

There are some authentic pleasures to be seen on stage: fierce demonstrations of drumming; a haunting Chinese violin solo; choreographed set pieces in which the sinuous calligraphy of the dancers' bodies is elaborated with rippling silks and fans. But too much of it goes against the troupe's stated commitment to preserve the heritage of classical China.

One tableau - Descent of the Celestial Kings - includes a pair of improbably western-looking angels with tinsel halos and wings. Another - The Risen Lotus Flower - shows Falun Gong prisoners being tortured but who are illuminated by a spiritual light that pirouettes around them like a digital Tinkerbell. It is all too weird a mix of propaganda and bling.

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