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Shen Yun show an awkward blend of art and ideology

An excursion through 5,000 years of Chinese dance was interrupted by a few ideological detours Friday.
Shen Yun Performing Arts' extravagant show at BJCC Concert Hall, which featured dozens of colorfully-costumed dancers, a pit orchestra and projected animated sets, was designed to take the audience through folk tales and classical steps from several regions of China. But at times, it seemed more like a promotion for the cause of Falun Dafa (also called Falun Gong).
According to the program, most of the New York-based company's members are followers of the Chinese spiritual practice, founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. The practice was banned in China in 1999 when the Chinese government feared the organization might grow too powerful and deemed it a cult, but it is very much alive outside of China.

Subsequent reports of detainments, torture and executions of Falun Gong members inspired several numbers in the show. One narrative, titled "Heaven Awaits Us Despite Persecution," depicted men in black suits with red hammer-and-sickle emblems on their backs beating and murdering a Falun Gong practitioner as his wife and child looked on. Another, "Dignity and Compassion," showed an imprisoned woman who, with the help of deities, convinces a Communist guard to release her. The guard is rewarded with a place in heaven.
Contemporary songs, translated from Chinese, detailed principles of the "long-awaited Dafa," peppered with words like "oppression" and "injustice."
In other works, drumming demonstrations and dance ensembles were well performed and expertly choreographed. Some made use of flowing sashes, fans, gowns and headdresses. Others featured Buddhist monks in blue wigs, flower formations and a variety of flips, twirls and cartwheels. Conjurings of Inner Mongolia and Tibet were better served by the projected images than the super-stylized choreography, but dances from the Manchu and Tang courts were focused and stately. Choreographed stories from traditional folklore were helped along by two emcees who introduced each piece with syrupy banter.
Assembled by a team of composers, the music was largely modern romanticism with Chinese flavorings. Although the orchestra was mostly Western, an erhu, pipa and a variety of wind instruments gave it a Chinese accent. Much of these instruments' charm, however, was obscured by the ear-piercing amplification, vocal solos by soprano Pi-ju Huang, baritone Qu Yue and tenor Hong Ming likewise distorted.
When tastefully done, ideology, religion and arts can commingle gracefully. This show - Falun Dafa's message wrapped in the guise of contemporary choreography and, in turn, in the guise of court and folk dances - blended awkwardly.

(al.com, August 23, 2009)
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