Shen Yun: Chinese Opera or Agit-prop Theatre – P2

The countdown is on. There is less than a week before I see Shen Yun. I have been looking forward to this for a very long time. When I think of theatrical spectacles, arena productions like Aida, pageant’s like the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and the Circe du Soliel, come to mind. In terms of categorising them, there are labels and adjectives available that encapsulate their essence: opera, parade, acrobatics. There is an understanding of what to expect in these words. All due to the western tradition that they have evolved from. But what of Shen Yun?

Shen Yun’s advertising shows dancers and an orchestra and the slogan, 5000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage! Elements of the production are further conveyed in their blurb:

“HEAVENLY REALMS and timeless legends spring to life through classical Chinese dance. Dazzling costumes, thunderous battle drums, and powerful flips fill the stage with color and energy. Exquisite melodies and animated backdrops uplift your spirit and transport you to another world.”

China has a centuries old tradition of storytelling. Many of its stories and myths have been preserved in the plots of the Chinese Opera. When I read the slogan, 5000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage, I immediately jumped to the conclusion, the Chinese Opera (or one of them) was touring Down Under. The pamphlet confused me. In addition to the elements described therein, the Chinese Opera has speaking roles and exquisite singing. These are not mentioned, nor depicted.

To alleviate my fog I began asking my Chinese friends and acquaintances whether they had seen the show and, if indeed, it is Chinese Opera. Their responses were unexpected. My pronunciation was off. No one got, first off, what I was asking about. In an effort to clarify my meaning I started saying the promoter’s name, the Falun Dafa Association of Australia. That got a response.

That’s political. Chinese people don’t get involved with politics. That’s from here, it’s not Chinese. More people practice it outside of China than in China. It’s propaganda against the Chinese government. The show will be third rate, in a sorry theatre space with amateurs. How can they produce a newspaper and give it away? Propaganda in print and in the theatre. That’s why they are giving away the tickets. If it was really Chinese Opera it would be playing at the Sydney Opera House. Big money is backing them, blackening the Chinese government. Big money from the West.

None had actually been to see the show. Just the association with the Falun Dafa instigated a tirade against the show. The Falun Dafa is the practice of a form of Buddhism/meditation that, controversially, took China by storm in the 1990s. It is also called Falun Gong (Law of Energy). To quote its website, it is a discipline in which assimilation to the highest qualities of the universe—Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance)—is the foundation of practice.(1) It is an organised group of practitioners under its founder, Mr Li Hongzhi, who teaches a way to enlightenment. It is a cultivation of ones thoughts and body. It is also considered a sect, allbeit a populous one.(2)

Sect. What a word? Sect and theatre. What a combination? What was I getting myself into? Memories flooded my head. . . Kenja, Bolsheviks, Living Newspaper, Oh! What a Lovely War!, Karagiozi inciting Greek patriots to arms and a didactic staging of all 900 plus pages (word for word, it seemed) of Ogburn’s, The Mysterious William Shakespeare. The performers of the Shen Yun are all said to practice Falun Gong. Is it more than just a warm up tool as they prepare to get into character. Will it be presented on stage?

As images revolved around my mind I wondered about the stage as a tool for progaganda. I thought of the Russian living newspaper, connecting with common people on the street through short, informative tableaus. Simple language with a strong, direct delivery. No reading between the lines. No subtext. No way of interpreting it other than the playwrights voice, reverberating in a chasm through which no other thought is allowed to traverse. I thought about Oh! What a Lovely War! and again popular theatre techniques came to mind. Headlines and news bulletins: all slogans brandishing the playwrights message like a sledgehammer. My mind then rested on a Kenja production I had seen: clowning, short tableau-scenes, opinionated, informative and long winded, repetitive and condescending.

Kenja has been considered more than a sect, a cult. It offers a cultivated way of seeing the world, as the Falun dafa do. But it is a different kind of organisation, it’s Western, miniscule by comparison, and unlike the Falun Dafa, it does not have the sympathy of the Australian press. Will Shen Yen be a political offering? Will it be anything like a Kenja production?

The most pervasive tool Kenja employed in their production was leaving the auditorium lights on. Why? As a norm in a Western theatre, we sit in a darkened room, the fourth wall is the stage. There may be 1500 people there but the darkness envelopes the audience with intimacy. In our own privacy we are allowed to interact cerebrally with the story and the subtext happening in the fourth wall. We are our own animal in the cave, watching the world in the sun without physically participating. What happens when the lights are on? The intimacy is broken. The performers see us, watch them, interpret them, judge them. Suddenly we have to be polite. Being polite means giving the performance the benefit of the doubt. It means appearing to agree with the actors, director and/or playwright for that space of time. Our socialization of politeness won’t allow us to feel freely and honestly respond to the performance.  In an almost bare auditorium, the light robs us and makes it very hard to walk out.

I don’t think I’ll have to this coming weekend. Shen Yun has more testimonials of its artistry than any other theatrical production that I have attended. Contrary to the tirade against it, it is now playing at one of the biggest commercial theatres in Sydney, with ticket prices starting at $80AUD. I am looking forward to seeing this show more than ever.

Shen Yun tickets are still available. Let me know what you think.



(1) Feb 11, 2015

(2) By 1999, as many as 100 million people in China were practising Falun Gong.

Minghui International brochure, Health Benefits, p 9.