Shen Yun: Cute or Cult?

What is Shen Yun?

I went, and I still don’t really know. Best I can do is describe it as Chinese ballet.

The Shen Yun website describes it as classical Chinese dance and music. The name literally means divine beings dancing.

Others have called it a cult.

The Cult of Shen Yun

When I went, I did not know this. I thought was doing my part to support the arts. In hindsight and after some research, I can kinda see it.

Founded in 2006 in New York, Shen Yun is the revival of 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture, with its varied customs and gods, in a time when China allows for only the proscribed communist propaganda. Its performers have been harassed and persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party, and the show cannot be seen in China. This is what Shen Yun will tell you.

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Page 1 of the Shen Yun program. IDK who D.F. is–and no shade–but he does look like a Hollywood villian.

The backstory is that the show was founded by the church of Falun Dafa, a meditation practice founded on 3 core values: truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. Sounds mellow, but at one point a dancer holds up a protest sign that says “Falun Dafa is good.” This was lost on me at the time.

At a slightly darker point in the show, a singer discourages the audience from believing in evolution in favor of god’s word instead. *Yikes* I reasoned that the song was traditional, old, and therefore outdated. Surely not the sentiment of today. But now I don’t actually know if that’s the case.

At no point in the show was alcohol allowed because it violates the teachings of Falun Dafa, which state that the smell of it interferes with the energy in the body. And that makes for a loooonnngggg 2.5 hours of sober ballet.

New Year, Long-Standing Goal Completed

I’ve wanted to go to Shen Yun for YEARS. I’ve tried to talk multiple friends into going, but all declined.

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A Shen Yun poster in its native habitat—a storefront window

I have one friend in particular—we’ll call her Lacey Baritone—who drags me to the worst shows: Jimmy Buffet, Dave Matthews, Train (well, it was a Hall & Oates show, but Train was there and that’s bad enough), so I figured she owed me. Whenever I saw a Shen Yun poster around town, I’d post it on social media and tag her.

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This GIANT Shen Yun poster at the mall was the last straw for me. I vowed that 2020 was my year to see it, and a lovely friend (not Lacey) came along.

No Such Thing as Bad Press

The Shen Yun ad campaign is astounding. Come October, Shen Yun posters are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. Liquor store, Shen Yun poster. Dry cleaners, Shen Yun poster. Moon, Shen Yun poster, I’m sure.

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This year they even sent flyers to our homes!

If people need to see something an average of 7 times to buy it, we should all be buying tickets to Shen Yun because I’ve seen a good 700 signs personally.

And all this leads me to the obvious question: how the hell much money do these people spend on posters?

According to the New Yorker, Shen Yun is a nonprofit with support from the Falun Dafa Association, reporting more than $75 million USD in assets and more than $22 million USD in revenue. From just our show, I estimated they brought in $100k.

The Show

Politics aside, the show is pretty great. There are lords of leaping, bel canto singers (which reminds me, SIDE NOTE: the unrelated book called Bel Canto is really good and you should read it), traditional 2-string erhu players, acrobats, and of course dancers.

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This is an erhu.

The costumes are quite beautiful. The dancers’ silk skirts and sleeves appear to be dip-dyed, giving them the appearance of colorful flowers when they spin and twirl to the live orchestra.

But with all that beauty, there are hokey bits. Like the background screen that makes you feel like you’re watching a video game, and not a very well-produced one. And the announcers, one speaking English and one speaking Chinese, who were…stuffy.

Twenty minutes in, I glanced at my friend with an apologetic look. But she was a good sport. And after a brief, alcohol-free intermission, nearly 3 hours had passed rather quickly.

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Merch: a $15 bookmark to (a) commemorate the event and the Sleeves of the Tang Palace dance, which was my fave; and (b) give Shen Yun ALL my money.

The Review

So, was it wort it? My answer is yes. I feel like I saw something interesting and supported the arts and religious freedom, all while existing in a sort of religious-inspired kung fu movie. I like that the show was so renegade, but that’s all I’ll say about that ‘cause I’m a little scared of the “inesechay overnmentgay,” for those who speak Pig Latin.

Is it for everyone? Definitely not. It’s 2.5 very sober hours of dancing in front of a CGI screen. And it’s not cheap, with tickets starting around $100 USD.

Nopics

I have no photos of the actual show because those are strictly prohibited, much like at Paisely Park, helping to maintain the mystique. Choose your own adventure on this one. I’m already responsible for dragging one friend to see it, and that’s on my conscience.

Shen Yun: it’s cute. But also maybe a cult.

 

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