n Australia, propaganda is seen as a relic from yesteryear and something we rarely see, apart from the occasional overly dramatic Defence Force ad.
Perhaps this is why it is so jarring when Shen Yun – a performance of traditional Chinese dance currently touring Australia – transforms into an overt thesis on the Communist persecution of the Falun Gong religious group.
As advertised on its website, Shen Yun is as a way to “discover the divine beauty of 500 years of classical Chinese culture”.
The Shen Yun Chinese ballet, run by the Falun Gong religion, draws attention to the persecution the group faces in China, with a few backflips and fan dances thrown in.
Falun Gong is a relatively new religious movement that gained popularity in China in the 1990s. With up to 70 million followers, the Chinese government outlawed the religion and thousands of devotees were arrested and killed, and many were also targeted by the illegal organ harvesting trade in China.
The show is a compilation of traditional ethnic dances, ballet renditions of Chinese folk lore, and operatic and instrumental acts.
But there are several more politically charged additions to the performance. In one dance, a group of monks are threatened by a businessman dressed suspiciously similar to Mao Zedong, carrying a blueprint that reads “destroy temple”.
The first act concludes with a group of Falun Gong followers meditating in a park when “Communist thugs”, as described by the show’s presenters, dressed in all black with a red hammer and sickle emblazoned on their backs, acrobatically beat the followers to death.
The last woman left alive crawls towards her child before being bludgeoned over the head. When this same baby decides to join Falun Gong years later the heavens open up and God reveals himself to her.
The operatic numbers include a baritone man singing of the wonders of Zhuan Falun (the Falun Gong holy book) and telling the audience to cast aside the Communist lies.
Tellingly, none of these scenes made it into the show’s advertising.
The performance itself is a mixed bag. The rather cheesy CGI characters flying in and out of stage are impossible to take seriously, while the amazing feats of acrobatics promised beforehand are few and far between.
There is no denying the dancers were highly skilled and beautiful. The Tibetan Drum, Mongolian Bowl, and Flower Fan dances are almost worth the expensive ticket price.
No matter how good the cause is, sneaking propaganda into a performance is a sure-fire way to leave the audience feeling tricked rather than moved.This is especially true when the message was a complete curveball for many of the audience members.
Shen Yun would have been much more compelling if it just committed to being a political ballet and advertised itself as such.
Shen Yun plays in Canberra tonight and tomorrow, April 3 and 4, and in Adelade from April 27-29. Details