Shen Yun

Dominion Theatre

The poster promises 5,000 years of Chinese dance tradition revived in what it says will be an “unparalleled theatrical experience”. What it doesn’t mention is that, once you get into the auditorium, this lofty aim comes with an unhealthy serving of political propaganda.

Invited to join a group of VIP ticketholders (among whom Julian Fellowes was the only recognisable face), I was approached by a variety of westerners who were “with the producers” and seemed eager to share their passion for Shen Yun. Far more than a stage show, it had changed their lives they said, in reverential tones.

That was not my experience. Over the next two hours, I was subjected to a series of dance vignettes, each more kitsch than the last, punctuated by a pair of Cheshire Cat-lipped presenters who bashed the audience over the head with the blunt instrument of the moral at the heart of each routine.

The effect was reminiscent of a sixteenth-century morality play. In one episode, a young man praying is taken away by men dressed in black with red hammer and sickle clumsily ironed onto their shirts. They blind him, only for his vision to be reinstated by a white-robed figure who appears at the climax.

This Buddha-like apparition represents Li Hongzhi, the founder of spiritual movement Falun Gong, which has been branded an “evil cult” by China’s communist state. For Shen Yun is a thinly veiled propaganda tool for Falun Gong, designed to draw in audiences with expectations of Chinese acrobatics in order to “educate” them on the victimisation of this quasi-religion (Shen Yun cannot perform in China) .

It is possible to imagine that some unsuspecting audience members might enjoy the show. The dancing is precise and there are hints of the acrobatics of which individual dancers are capable. The vignettes do attempt to present China’s diverse heritage (Tang, Han, Hmong, Qing)—albeit in an oversaturated vision of crinoline and polyester. But there is no more development than that.

The giant computer-generated screen of a backdrop doesn’t do enough to compensate for the lack of a set. The overwhelming feeling is of watching a video game, ironic given Li Hongzhi’s condemnation of such pursuits (along with homosexuality).

The narrators inform us that Shen Yun means "the beauty of divine bodies dancing". But the reality is of a show as two-dimensional as the screen it is set against.

Reviewer: Belle Donati