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Shen Yun Chinese acrobats: We don’t have coronavirus

The company really wants you to know its colorful dance show is actually based in New York, not China.
Shen Yun returns to the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Feb. 14-20, 2020. [Shen Yun]
Shen Yun returns to the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Feb. 14-20, 2020. [Shen Yun]
Published Feb. 7
Updated Feb. 7

Got tickets to Shen Yun, the colorful, acrobatic celebration of traditional Chinese culture coming to the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg?

Don’t worry about catching the coronavirus.

That’s the message the company wants to impart to ticketholders to its upcoming performances, including seven shows in St. Petersburg from Feb. 14-20.

“Shen Yun is based in New York, not China,” the company wrote in a statement on its website. “Performers have not been to China in years, have not had recent direct contact with people from China, and in fact Shen Yun is not even allowed to perform in China.”

But as China’s rampant coronavirus outbreak continues to spread — as of Thursday, more than 500 people had died, and 28,000 had become infected — that hasn’t stopped people from peppering Shen Yun with questions and comments on social media. Some seem earnest, some seem joking, and some seem tinged with xenophobia.

The coronavirus has had an impact on the performing arts world. Orchestras, dance companies and other arts organizations have canceled performances or replaced performers impacted by a restriction on travel in and out of China. The National Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra both pulled out of trips to China, while a Shanghai Chinese Orchestra had a California concert canceled over “an abundance of caution.”

With its omnipresent advertising and stated mission of honoring “5,000 years of civilization reborn,” Shen Yun pops up in cities all across America every year, billboards and posters and flyers in tow. This year, it’ll decamp in eight cities in Florida alone between January and April, performing beguiling dances and acrobatic acts in bright costumes and elaborate scenery.

Even without the threat of coronavirus, Shen Yun isn’t free of controversy. Shen Yun Performing Arts is an arm of Falun Dafa, which the organization calls “a meditation discipline based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.” The Chinese Embassy refers to it by the name Falun Gong, and calls it an “anti-society cult" that is “anti-humanity and anti-science, and exercises extreme mental manipulation on followers.”

Shen Yun says it is a victim of Chinese censorship and persecution, although as publications like the New Yorker and Guardian have noted, it isn’t so cut-and-dry. The Guardian wrote that Falun Dafa, often described as secretive, has “the aura of an eastern version of Scientology," and its founder, Li Hongzhi, has espoused controversial opinions on subjects like race-mixing and homosexuality.

As the New Yorker put it last year, it all culminates in a Shen Yun show that is, “essentially, religious-political propaganda — or, more generously, an extremely elaborate commercial for Falun Dafa’s spiritual teachings and its plight vis-à-vis the Chinese Communist regime.”

As it relates to the coronavirus, though, Shen Yun says it’s in the clear. A spokeswoman for the Mahaffey Theater referred questions to a spokeswoman for Shen Yun, who said all St. Petersburg shows will go on as planned, and referred the Times back to the group’s original coronavirus statement.

“Shen Yun’s performers — dancers, musicians, as well as technical crew — all live and train in New York,” the statement reads. "As individuals, they are also banned from traveling to China, long ago having been blacklisted by the Chinese government for their involvement in Shen Yun. No performer has been back to China in years.

“And so audience members can enjoy Shen Yun performances resting assured that Shen Yun and its performers have been isolated from today’s China.”

Tickets to Shen Yun start at $80. For showtimes, visit themahaffey.com.

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