For the past month it's been advertised on television, splashed across billboards, pasted on street corners, and staring up at you when you open the morning newspaper—Shen Yun Performing Arts: 5,000 Years of Civilization! The colorful advertisements feature photos of costumed dancers alongside breathless promo copy and endorsements from notable personages like Donna Karan ('Mesmerizing!"), Cate Blanchett ("Exquisitely beautiful"), and "former VP of marketing" Bennie Dale ("I have never experienced anything quite like this").
But what exactly is Shen Yun? The dance troupe was founded in 2006 in New York by practitioners of Falun Gong, the Buddhist spiritual movement outlawed by the Chinese Communist government, which has imprisoned, tortured, and killed thousands of its members. Shen Yun, whose name means "divine rhythm," currently comprises four traveling companies of about 60 dancers each (accompanied by a Western-style orchestra that includes traditional Chinese instruments) that tour the world simultaneously, each year performing a brand-new production that tells the history of China from Falun Gong's perspective. Past productions have woven retellings of traditional Chinese stories like the Legend of Mulan and the Outlaws of the Marsh with sequences depicting the suppression of Falun Gong adherents by the Communist Party. The show is accompanied by narration in English and Chinese.
On its official website Shen Yun describes itself as a guardian of Chinese culture against Communist depredations: "Over its past 60 years of rule, the communist regime has treated traditional Chinese values—centered on the idea of harmony between heaven and earth—as a threat to its existence. And in its systematic campaigns like the Cultural Revolution, it has uprooted traditional beliefs and destroyed ancient treasures—bringing traditional 5,000 years [sic] of civilization to the brink of extinction."
Pace Donna Karen and Cate Blanchett, Shen Yun has not received unanimous accolades. In 2008, Sarah Crompton, writing in UK's The Telegraph, decried the show's "Disneyfied version" of Chinese history, calling the performance "one of the weirdest and most unsettling evenings I have ever spent in the theatre." While expressing sympathy with the sufferings of Falun Gong members under Communist persecution, Crompton also notes several of Falun Gong's more distasteful beliefs, including its condemnation of homosexuality and mixed-race marriages.
Shen Yun receives extensive coverage in the free Falun Gong–run newspaper The Epoch Times, which grandiosely describes the group as "the significant cultural event of our time." This morning's Epoch Times featured a story about the show's Houston premiere that quoted several audience members raving about the production's "beautiful colors and great dancing." According to Simon Jackson, identified as "the president of a local company in Houston," the show "takes you out of a city of noise, hustle, and bustle, and I guess in a sense it's very meditative."
Shen Yun, thru Jan 7, $70–200, Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St., 800-380-8165, shenyunperformingarts.org