The advertising is relentless. If this touring show’s marketing campaign were an ocean-going vessel, it’d be a dreadnaught — one of those massive warships with large-caliber guns, circa World I, that could obliterate on-shore targets miles away. The “Shen Yun” team floods a market with any means at its disposal: billboards, TV and radio, direct mail, vastly expensive wrap-around newspaper ads that easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars (and perhaps even more, in the largest markets). And “Shen Yun” seems to be everywhere — I was driving through McAllen, Texas, and, boom, there was the familiar billboard. The advertising is so pervasive, in fact, that I half expect a dancer or two to pop up at my front door and press a leaflet into my hands.
All this marketing must take a lot of money, even with the deep-pockets support of the Falun Gong movement. Which brings me to my next point:
Tickets are expensive. The cheapest seat at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre is $80, and top ticket price is $150. That’s more than anything I can think of that has played at the Saroyan, including top-tier nationally touring musicals such as “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon” and “The Phantom of the Opera” (which in 2016 charged a top price of $103). The price of an entertainment event can be a complex equation, of course, that includes such factors as the cost to tour a show, the salaries of the performers, market supply and demand. But I don’t hesitate to say that the cost to see “Shen Yun” is out of proportion to what you get for the experience.
The dancing is spectacular. The number of hours spent rehearsing must be staggering. When I saw the Fresno production last year, here’s how I described it in my review for The Fresno Bee:
Picture a serene lake with water so still it’s like glass. A pond skater – one of those insects so delicate it can walk on water – moves gracefully across, never breaking the surface tension. The effect is one of an almost infinite lightness. It’s as if you’re watching a creature walking on air.
That image came to mind while watching much of the classical dancing in the show. The fluidity of the movements, set by a number of credited choreographers, is exceptional. It’s as if we’re watching dancers so connected they’re part of a single organism.
Add to that a Rockettes-style degree of precision that is almost spookily perfect. Every arm extends to the same exact position; every leg kicks at the same angle; every jump seems to reach precisely the same number of inches off the ground. Even the pleats in the vibrant costumes, a rush of candyish pastel colors, seem to line up perfectly.
“Shen Yun” is more than just a dance concert. It is a tribute to the Chinese cultural arts, yes, but it’s also a heavy-handed introduction to Falun Gong, the spiritual movement that has been harshly repressed by the Chinese government. It is a beautiful and odd production that veers wildly between two extremes: delicate artistic excellence on one hand and a brusque, heavy-handed effort to inculcate political and spiritual viewpoints on the other.
Some people call the tone of the show proselytizing; others say it is a beautiful testament to the resilience of the human spirit; still others (including the Chinese government) calls it blatant propaganda. One thing is clear: The creators of the show make a series of emphatic political points. From a creative standpoint, those points clash with the delicate artistry of the show.
From my review:
In one scene, titled ““A Child’s Choice,” dancers played people practicing the slow-movement meditation of Falun Dafa when Chinese authorities show up to brutalize them. A mother is separated from her child, to tragic effect. Storm clouds appear. The stage darkens.
By the second act, the political message got much more forceful:
The second act concludes with more communist violence on stage and a more overt spiritual message (“Yet many have forgotten to seek the precious book / Dafa, the Great Way that saves, is being taught / Heaven’s gates shan’t be open forever,” soprano Haolan Geng sings.)
The narrative includes what appears to be a nuclear mushroom cloud and the digital arrival of an enlightened figure, to whom the dancers show reverence, each one offering upraised palms together.
To which I thought: Whoa. Who’s this guy? What’s going on here? (A later internet search filled me in on some of the key players in Falun Gong.)
For an audience member, it isn’t clear what you’re getting into. I won’t go so far as to call “Shen Yun” bait-and-switch, but the marketing doesn’t tell the whole story. All those beautiful display ads and billboards play up the artistry but don’t mention Falun Gong. When you dig deeper into the website, you’ll catch an allusion to spirituality, and a whiff of concern about Communist oppression, but the political element is couched more in terms that the Chinese government sees traditional culture as a threat to its power and restricts it.
To be clear: Art doesn’t have to be politics-free. In fact, there’s a long and rich tradition of art and politics being intertwined. The same goes for art and religion. But as someone considering paying up to $150 for an artistic experience, I’m concerned the producers don’t make clear in their marketing materials and advertising just how much a part of the show its political and spiritual messages are.
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