ST. PETERSBURG — Shen Yun is exotic, and lavishly promoted, so perhaps it was not surprising that a good-sized crowd turned out for its show Friday night. Mahaffey Theater was close to full for what was billed as an evening of Chinese classical dance, but I wonder how many in attendance were prepared for the Act 1 scene in which a quartet of billyclub-wielding police in black (with red hammer-and-sickle figures on their jackets) attacked a photo-taking tourist father and daughter and threw them in jail.
There was, in fact, plenty of dance in Friday's performance, the first of four this weekend by the New York-based organization founded by followers of Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, a quasi-religious practice of meditation and breathing exercises that was banned in China in 1999. However, amid the colorfully costumed numbers ostensibly covering 5,000 years of Chinese culture, the politics kept cropping up.
"The injustice we just saw has been taking place in China for more than a decade," the male MC said after "An Unexpected Encounter," the first-act scene in which dad and daughter were beaten. Later, when Falun Dong demonstrators in Tiananmen Square were assaulted by police, a kind of divine intervention was depicted in graphics on the large video screen that served as a backdrop to the stage, with a cityscape of modern China collapsing into a fiery pit.
Needless to say, Shen Yun's China is a fantasy land of rice paddies and pagodas and not the China of Nike and Apple factories, and Friday's performance — more like a pageant, really — was for the most part made up of a series of sentimental vignettes. They ranged from fighting Shaolin monks to Mongolian bowl dancing, a Tang Dynasty battle with flashy spins and flips to a joyful harvest folk dance.
All this was supported by an orchestra of 40 or 45 players, including a few traditional Chinese instruments but mainly reliant on syrupy strings. Much of the dancing was well done, and many of the costumes were lovely, such as the twirling red, sequined handkerchiefs in an ode to early spring. But overall, the show was a hokey throwback to the ethnic dance spectacles that used to be inserted between the comedians and the pop groups on the old Ed Sullivan TV variety show — except, that is, whenever the black-clad police made an appearance to pummel Falun Gong meditators.
There have been Shen Yun shows where audience members walked out in protest of the heavyhanded politics, but Friday's audience seemed to take it all in without much reaction beyond mild applause between numbers.
Shen Yun tours constantly, but its political agenda is not clearly stated in the advertising, which is built around a weird selection of celebrity (and noncelebrity) endorsements, from Cate Blanchett to a CNN producer. Surely ticket buyers — and the top ticket is $200 — deserve to know what they're getting into.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.