Played for fools, by 'Shen Yun'

Spectacle is nothing more than hype and propaganda

The Buffalo News/May 28, 2010

You've really got to hand it to the folks behind "Shen Yun," the unconscionable piece of religious propaganda that appeared Thursday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center.

Through an overwhelming promotional campaign that featured smiling attendants stationed at kiosks in local malls, they duped thousands of people into paying outrageous sums of money to watch a half-baked advertisement for Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa), a spiritual sect whose adherents have been brutally persecuted by China's government.

Bravo, "Shen Yun." You pulled one over on us.

Marketed as a survey of 5,000 years of Chinese culture through classical and folk dances from the country, "Shen Yun" turns out to be little more than a church pageant. Were it advertised as such, some of its flaws could be forgiven. Since it was not, it deserves to be held to account for the deception its creators have wrought.

The show contains several examples of bald proselytizing, including scenes in which followers of Falun Gong are brutally assaulted and - I kid you not, bro - repeatedly Tased. It also features performances of Falun Dafa songs, including one with the catchy title of "Nothing Can Block the Divine Path," which implores listeners to follow the Falun Dafa way. There is no attempt at subtlety in the numbers, which are tossed in amid innocuous dances that give glimpses into various Chinese narratives and traditions as if they were just another story to be told. In fact, these numbers are the only reason the show exists.

I hesitate to delve too deeply into the artistic merits of such an unconscionable misuse of the ancient art of Chinese dance, but in the interest of fairness I will offer this: Imagine what it might be like to watch a synchronized swimming team perform in front of a gigantic Windows 95 screen-saver. That should give you a pretty good idea of where "Shen Yun" ranks on the artistic merit scale. The costume-heavy spectacle is more of a fashion show than a serious exhibition of the intricacies of Chinese dance, which is unsurprising given the company's interest in dressing up its religious message in dazzling clothes.

Walking out of the theater - though I'd come knowing what to expect, as the company has amassed a reputation for its disingenuous marketing machine - I couldn't help recalling a scene from "A Christmas Story." In that scene, Ralphie, after saving up and waiting months to receive his secret "Little Orphan Annie" decoder ring, discovered when it finally arrived that it existed simply as an advertisement for Ovaltine. "Shen Yun," to the great disappointment of those it promised otherwise, is really just another crummy commercial.

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