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It's advertised as a cultural spectacular -- a lavishly costumed revival of traditional dance and music from China's pre-Communist past.
Shen Yun Performing Arts, founded in 2006 and based in New York City, promotes itself as "the world's premier Chinese dance and music company."
But when an 89-member Shen Yun troupe gives its first-ever performances in Winnipeg Wednesday and Thursday, audience members may enter the Centennial Concert Hall unaware of the show's controversial ties to Falun Gong.
Falun Gong is a worldwide spiritual movement founded in 1992 and outlawed in the People's Republic of China since 1999. Human-rights groups say Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China have been jailed and tortured. Arts critics have varied in their opinions of Shen Yun productions, with some finding them dazzling and visually stunning, and others calling them cheesy and amateurish.
But virtually every critic agrees that there are political and religious messages in the two-hour-plus production. The show includes scenes depicting persecution and murder of Falun Gong practitioners in contemporary China.
"One dance (called Nothing Can Block the Divine Path) tells about a young mother being persecuted and beaten to death. Her spirit goes on," Yanping Lu, the troupe's production manager, said from Calgary this week.
Another dance called Astounding Conviction, Lu said, depicts a young man unfurling a Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) banner and being thrown in jail, where Buddhas show him magic power.
Lu said most of the show's 16 dance numbers and four vocal solos don't deal with persecution, but many have uplifting moral themes and extol virtues promoted by Falun Gong: truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.
"All the stories are very touching because (they) tell the story of the triumph of righteousness over evil...
"We hope audiences do not just feel entertained... . We hope they gain some insights that will help them in their lives."
Lu said it would be discriminatory to single out Falun Gong in the troupe's advertising because Falun Gong is just one of many aspects of the show that reflect traditional Chinese values.
She pointed the finger at touring shows endorsed by the Chinese government as having a political agenda. "Chinese shows sponsored or supported by the Chinese embassy often whitewash (human) rights abuses in China and ... praise the Chinese Communist party."
Most Shen Yun dancers and musicians are Falun Gong practitioners who are ethnically Chinese but grew up in the West, Lu said.
Several newspapers have described audience-member walkouts at Shen Yun performances and quoted ticket buyers saying they felt misled by advertising that did not mention the Falun Gong theme. In January, a reviewer for the AtlantaJournal-Constitution wrote that at times, the show's political proselytizing "was as subtle as a Taser shot to the noggin."
In the New York Times in 2008, Maria Hsia Chang, a professor emerita of political science and author of a book about Falun Gong, described the Shen Yun show as "kind of a PR front to try to normalize Falun Gong's image."
The troupe's extensive website, shenyunperformingarts.org, makes no mention of Falun Gong. Nor does the glossy brochure distributed locally, except for a line in very small, pale type that names the local presenter, the Falun Dafa Association of Winnipeg. Falun Dafa is the formal name for Falun Gong.
Maria Cheung, a social work professor at the University of Manitoba who is from Hong Kong, belongs to the Falun Dafa Association of Winnipeg, which she says has roughly 40 to 50 members. She is the co-organizer of the Shen Yun presentation here.
She saw Shen Yun two years ago in New York and described the production as dignified, uplifting and hopeful. "I was just in awe... I've seen a lot of Chinese shows, but I haven't seen such a beautiful show, honestly."
Cheung said anyone who labels the production "propaganda" doesn't understand ancient Chinese teachings and is buying into the Chinese government's stigmatizing of Falun Gong.
"Shen Yun brings peace," Cheung said. "Their message is really peaceful, calm and serene... Art searches for the meaning of life. It's a form of expression."
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The world-travelled, New York City-based group has three touring troupes. It has performed in such high-profile venues as Radio City Music Hall, the Kennedy Center and Paris's Palais de Congrès. It was seen by 800,000 people last year alone.
Shen Yun performed in five Canadian cities in January and is now on a tour including Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg.
The troupe includes a 40-piece orchestra that plays a fusion of Western and Chinese music, four singers and 41 dancers who wear more than 400 vibrant costumes.
The show has two bilingual MCs. The singers' lyrics are projected in English.
Shen Yun representatives have said Chinese embassies and consulates throughout the world have tried to suppress the troupe by pressuring sponsors to pull their support.
Ticket sales for the Winnipeg shows have been "a little slow," says the local presenter.