By John Fleming
Times Performing Arts Critic
Chinese dance, music and acrobatics have become popular, thanks to Cirque du Soleil, the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics and other extravaganzas. That draws audiences to the Shen Yun troupe, which performs this weekend in Tampa. Plenty of promotion and advertising also help, along with celebrity endorsement by the likes of Cate Blanchett: "It was an extraordinary experience. … The level of skill but also the power of the archetypes and the narratives were startling. And of course it was exquisitely beautiful."
But there is also controversy about the New York-based Shen Yun because of its close association with Falun Gong, a quasireligious movement that has been banned by the government of China since 1999. Also called Falun Dafa, the group has been subjected to harsh censure by Communist authorities.
Shen Yun does not clearly state its politics and religion in promotional material that cite "a presentation of traditional Chinese culture as it once was: a study in grace, wisdom, and virtues distilled from five millennia of Chinese civilization." Critics say the performance includes heavy-handed depictions of human rights abuses in China. Surely ticket buyers — and the top ticket is $200 — deserve to know what they're getting into.
In 2008, a reviewer for London's Telegraph termed a Shen Yun show "one of the weirdest and most unsettling evenings I've ever spent in the theatre." In 2010, the Buffalo News called the show "a half-baked advertisement for Falun Gong."
Shen Yun tours constantly — it has played Mahaffey Theater several times — and has shows at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. $50-$200. (813) 229-7827; strazcenter.org.