Ticket buyers to two shows Friday by Shen Yun Performing Arts at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater may be in for a surprise. The production is billed as Chinese classical dance and music, and while that is accurate as far as it goes, it doesn't tell the entire story.
There's also controversy about Shen Yun because of its politics. Based in New York, the group is basically a mouthpiece for Falun Gong, a quasi-religious movement that has been banned in China by Communist authorities and subjected to harsh censure. Critics say its performances include heavy-handed depiction of human rights abuses in China.
Raymond J. Reboulet, an Atlanta resident, wrote a letter to the St. Petersburg Times decrying Shen Yun as "little more than the propaganda arm" of Falun Gong. Reboulet and his wife had attended a performance by the group this month and expected to see "some of the same precision and pageantry the world saw during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics." But instead, he went on, "we were subjected to what amounted to an indoctrination session and paid dearly for the privilege."
As Reboulet and others point out, Shen Yun does not clearly state its cause in promotional material for its tour, which had performances Tuesday and Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale and will be in Jacksonville Saturday and Sunday. Ticket buyers — and the top ticket price for Friday's shows in St. Petersburg is a hefty $107 — deserve to know what they're getting into. The production has some political baggage that catches many viewers by surprise. In 2008, a reviewer for London's Telegraph termed it "one of the weirdest and most unsettling evenings I have ever spent in the theatre."
Nevertheless, the production has received the endorsements of Gov. Charlie Crist, Sens. Bill Nelson and George S. LeMieux and many other state and local elected officials. Crist's proclamation praises "the excellence and grandeur of classical Chinese dance and music" but says nothing about the politics of Shen Yun.
Nicole Landry, a spokeswoman for Mahaffey, said the production is a rental at the theater. On Wednesday, advance ticket sales amounted to about 50 percent capacity for the 11 a.m. Friday performance and 75 percent capacity for the evening show, she said. Shen Yun, which tours constantly, was previously at the theater in 2008. "It has been a nonissue for us," said Landry, adding that Mahaffey management is aware of the political nature of the production. "We have not received any negative feedback or phone calls regarding their presence at our theater."
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.