Shen Yun bills itself as a presentation of 5,000 years of Chinese culture in one night.
Its marketing is slick and plentiful, with expensive wrap-around newspaper advertisements (including in The Bee), billboards and TV commercials publicizing the event in each city the tour visits. The marketing materials emphasize the artistry of the dancers, singers and musicians.
What you might not know. Those marketing materials, however, do not emphasize that Shen Yun is a tool to promote the Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) spiritual movement, which has been the object of repression in China.
How that message is delivered. In the January show at the Saroyan, scenes included contemporary references to police violence against Falun Gong members in China. The Bee’s Kathy Mahan praised the technical artistry of the performers, but she felt the show was repetitious and had some heavy-handed political undertones. UCLA professor James Tong told the Los Angeles Times: “The Falun Gong has a very well organized, managed and elaborate program of public relations, and Shen Yun is part of that.”
Critical reaction: The “Shen Yun” tour has garnered both pointed critiques and praise since its 2006 founding in New York. “Beneath all the colorful costume changes, pounding drumbeats and relentlessly repetitious acrobatic movements lies a political undercurrent that feels more like propaganda than straightforwardly presented cultural heritage,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted in 2015. “There is a distinctly political edge to the modern tales of oppression that are interspersed with ribbon dances and bowl dances,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 2016.
The takeaway: Many audience members never realize the political and spiritual connections of “Shen Yun.” Others do and don’t care, entranced by the show’s visuals and cultural impact. Still others feel that the Falun Gong angle is relevant and disquieting. It all adds another layer to what turns out to be more than just a dance performance.