Pictured above: Shen Yun ran in St. Petersburg at the Mahaffey Theater from Feb. 14-20.
Story and photo by Carrie Pinkard
When my best friend asked if I wanted to go see Shen Yun at the Mahaffey I responded, “Sure.”
I had no idea what the show was about. I had seen billboards of brightly dressed Chinese women leaping through the air for years, but I never thought more about it.
Nestling into our seats in the middle of the theater, we had a perfect view of the stage.
The first few songs aligned well with the advertisements. Dancers adorned with every color of the rainbow twirled and flipped in unison. It was a breathtaking array of color and a striking display of athleticism.
It wasn’t until the fifth song, when the audience had slunk comfortably in their seats, when the tone shifted.
The stage lights came on to a group of young people reading about their religion, Falun Dafa, in a park. One of the men center stage held up a scroll that said: “Falun Dafa is good.” I glanced skeptically at my friend out of the corner of my eye. In my experience, if someone has to hold up a sign declaring something to be good, it isn’t.
Suddenly, dancers dressed as Chinese officials stormed into the park and started beating the people practicing their religion with switches. The music grew dark and so did the stage. When the lights came on again, they were in jail. A dancer dressed as a doctor walked on stage and proceeded to gouge out the eyes of the Falun Gong prisoners.
My jaw dropped. There was nervous murmuring in the audience. Sitting dead in the center of the theatre, the exits started to feel far away.
“Are we in the wrong Mahaffey Theater?” I whispered to my friend.
But then, with another shift in tone and explosion of color, things were happy again! Believing in Falun Dafa and praying to a god projected on the screen healed the prisoner’s vision and restored their eyes. The message being burned into the audience was clear: Falun Dafa is “good,” the Chinese government is bad.
Many of the dances were devoid of political messages. They were instead traditional dances from fallen dynasties and provinces of China. Mongolian cowboys puffed out their chests and stampeded around the stage. Ladies of the Manchurian court elegantly displayed their style. Li Bai, a poet from the Tang Dynasty, was visited by dancing angels.
However, the political songs were so sudden and forceful that they gave the audience whiplash.
“Atheism and Evolutionary theory poison the soul”
“Free yourself of modern thought and ways bizarre”
“The ways of tradition lead to heaven’s alter”
At intermission, a host asked the audience if they wanted to learn something in Chinese. Perhaps afraid to say no, the audience murmured approval.
We were taught how to say “I love Shen Yun,” and then chanted it together. It’s not unlike how I imagine the Manson family declared their love for Uncle Charlie in unison.
I wasn’t expecting to be indoctrinated at this performance. If I had bought a ticket for Scientology the Musical, at least I would know what to expect.
At the end of the night, the host explained to the audience that the music and dancing in Shen Yun change every year, so we should come back in 2021.
Even if the choreography changes, Falun Dafa is sure to be the central message.
Maybe you’re intrigued by watching Chinese acrobats seamlessly spin religious and political messaging into their back handsprings.
Or maybe I drank the Kool-Aid so that you don’t have to.
（crowsneststpete.com，February 24, 2020）