Sarah Crompton reviews Shen Yun at the Festival Hall
This show is advertised as a Chinese spectacular - a kind of Eastern version of Cirque du Soleil. It is nothing of the kind.
Acrobatics, singing and dancing skills are used in the service of a propaganda exercise on the part of Falun Gong, a group banned as an "evil cult" by the Communist Chinese government in 1999.
Most of the members of the Divine Performing Arts troupe are members of Falun Gong. But their beliefs do not simply form a backdrop to a neutral presentation of traditional Chinese dance and legends. They are the focal point of the evening.
Thus the songs boast about the benefit of the laws and principles by which they live, the dance scenes are mostly parables and the climax is a vignette set in a modern Chinese park, where a good woman and her daughter are beaten for their beliefs by evil Communist Party thugs until the people rise up against them.
Now it does seem, from Amnesty International evidence, that followers of this group have suffered brutal persecution; on the other hand, I am reluctant to welcome the teachings of a man who believes that aliens live among us and that homosexuality and mixed-raced marriages are degenerate. This seems a long way from the "truthfulness, compassion and forbearance" presented as the group's principles on stage.
But what I really object to is that such a politically motivated performance is being smuggled on to stages around Europe in the name of family entertainment. And at the group's first performance in Britain on Friday at the Festival Hall, I was not alone. While many of the audience - the majority of Chinese origin - applauded, others were appalled.
In such a context, any judgment of the piece's artistic merit seems beside the point, but it is a horribly Disneyfied version of the traditional Chinese culture it seeks to celebrate.
Introduced by two constantly smiling bilingual presenters, the singers wear a strange mixture of old-fashioned Western garb (purple crinoline, white evening suits) and the dancers appear dressed as Tibetan monks, ancient warriors, flowers and the like in brilliantly coloured silks. They perform against bright slides, across which flying Buddhas or spirits occasionally zoom into view, to unintentionally comic effect.
They move with great discipline and some grace, but the promised acrobatics are few and far between. The best of the routines - some ferocious drummers, a Mongolian bowl dance, a Tibetan dance of welcome - are those that are simplest and least admonitory. The rest are tainted by the baggage they are asked to carry.
The result is one of the weirdest and most unsettling evenings I have ever spent in the theatre.
(Telegraph.co.uk, February 25, 2008)
Original text from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/02/25/btshen125.xml