“Intermission!” cried the emcee, the first English she had spoken during her appearances between the pieces so far. As she and her English translating counterpart shuffled off the stage, the lights rose in the theatre.
Gwen, for her part, immediately grabbed her program, pulling it open to the lyrics of the song that had closed out the act. Performed by a tenor who strained for his highest notes, the song “Heaven Awaits” was a bel canto aria composed by the production’s artistic director, D.F.
“What do you think D.F. stands for?” Dania said, pointing to the leader’s name in the program. His headshot, adorning the title page, obscured his eyes behind dark, tinted glasses.
“Falun Dafa?” Eleanor suggested. “Maybe it’s a fake name.”
“Well, someone’s obviously choreographing it,” Dania continued. “There’s a person in charge. I don’t think they’d need to fake that.”
Gwen, meanwhile, had found the lyrics in “Heaven Awaits” that had caught her ear when they were sung just minutes before:
Now, Dafa, the Great Way, is finally taught / The truth is close at hand / The Creator is renewing all things / Yet Heaven’s gates will not be open for long!
Eleanor stood up and walked past Gwen.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna go look at the pit,” Eleanor said.
Exiting to the lobby, Eleanor walked past the tables that had been set up for Shen Yun’s merch – silk scarves and bookmarks, DVDs of the orchestra’s performance at Carnegie Hall. She overheard a woman ask one of the vendors if the scarf she was now wrapping around herself was authentically Chinese. The vendor confirmed that it was.
Entering the theatre’s lower level, Eleanor marched down the uneven steps towards the pit, the projected “NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED” light frowning on her from the front curtain. Reaching the edge, Eleanor peered over the lip to find, dismayingly, that the orchestra had retired to backstage. Eleanor pouted, but glanced over to see the conductor’s open score.
As she started to walk back, she suddenly saw that she was not alone: shrouded in black and obscured by her harp, one musician was practicing near the back of the pit. Just as Eleanor stopped, the harpist looked up through the strings. Locking eyes, Eleanor smiled and raised a hand in greeting. The harpist smiled back, guardedly, before gluing her focus back to her score.
– – – – –
“Best segment, go.”
“They all blend together for me,” Gwen said, as they walked out into the wind. “If I said I enjoyed the one with the fourteen women dancing in unison, that narrows it down to about four of the segments.”
“There was more than that,” Dania said. “There was the one about the tourists in the temple, the one with all the people who had bells on their hats, the archery one, two really anti-China ones…”
“Yeah, let’s talk about the two anti-China ones,” Eleanor hesitated. “I mean, let’s get 100 yards from the theatre, but.”
“Nothing we say is going to offend them,” Gwen jeered. “They’re not looking for reviews of their show.”
Still, the trio waited until they were at a distance from the theatre before they spoke again.
“Okay, but let’s talk about those pieces,” Eleanor said, pressingly. “Because they kind of changed the entire show for me.”
“You knew it was going to be propaganda,” Gwen said. “I told you explicitly when you said you wanted to go.”
“You said you wanted to go!” Eleanor said. “You were like, ‘no one has ever actually seen Shen Yun, let’s get discount tickets and find out what it is!'”
“Okay, but you were not against it.”
“Point being,” Eleanor continued. “It started with you. But propaganda is one thing. A guy gets tased in the middle of the number.”
“This story is based on true events taking place in China today,” Dania recited, holding open the program. “It’s not subtle.”
“They were kicked out of China by the Chinese government,” Gwen said. “I think it makes sense that they would remain bitter about that.”
“Bitter is one thing,” Eleanor said. “Building a traveling dance show that secretly – not even secretly, Dania’s right – deliberately implants anti-China messaging into its performances? That’s more sustained anger.”
“I mean, you never know with China,” Dania said, with a shrug.
“What does that mean?”
“Kick a religious group out of the country?” Dania asked. “It does sound like a thing they might do.”
Eleanor’s silence ceded the point that this might be true. “But you don’t know for sure,” she added. “Don’t make assumptions.”
“It does make for a fascinating misinformation loop,” Gwen commented. “Do you trust the Chinese government, or the faction they allegedly kicked out? Who’s telling the real story?”
“I don’t know,” Eleanor said, with a sigh. “All I know is that one of them has a nationally touring dance show touting their version of the events. And that’s sorta weird.”
“What’s stranger is that they don’t advertise it,” Gwen agreed.
“Don’t advertise?” Dania cut in. “What rock have you been under? I can’t walk two blocks before that jumping girl on the yellow background shows up in a window. They’ve gotta have a small army putting posters up. Even places that don’t put posters up end up with “SHEN YUN” sticking out of the window.”
“That’s not what I meant by not advertising,” Gwen strained. “They advertise like mad. But the angle is always ‘5,000 Years of Chinese Dance.’ There’s never an indication that there’s going to be a ‘modern’ section.”
“There’s also no mention about them being run by the Falun Dafa in the program,” Eleanor said. She flipped through the pages as they walked. “They mention the religion, duh. But that they are a wing of the organization, that’s not brought up.”
“Perhaps it’s part of the soft sell,” Gwen said. “To recruit people to join.”
“Is that what they’re doing?” Dania asked.
“It certainly appears that way,” Gwen said. “Listen to the lyrics of that soprano’s song near the end.”
Gwen took Eleanor’s program, and found the lyrics:
“To turn from God’s ways puts us at great risk / Many are mislead by godlessness and evolution / Modern thought and ways change us for the worse / What we truly long for is to return to Heaven”
“Think about the show,” she continued, handing back Eleanor’s program. “Everything that’s good about it is old. The ancient dances, the traditional beliefs, the classic stories. Even if you thought the Falun Dafa was a fictional religion they made up for the dances, you walk away with a distinct sense that the old ways are good, and the new bad. That sounds like recruitment to me, of a sense.”
“I mean, maybe that’s in there,” Dania mused. “I don’t think most people are going to get that, though. I think most people will just shrug off the two political dances and focus on the pretty ones. The fun ones. Y’know, the ones on the posters.”
“They are very well executed dances,” Gwen said. “I’d never pay the $180 top-price for it, though. It’s more the type of performance you’d see at a World’s Fair, or a cultural expo. The dancing’s not so difficult, and the production values are a little cheesy.”
“Don’t tell me you hated the wall,” Dania grinned. She was referring to the massive LCD wall that served as the backdrop for the performance. A small flight of steps up to the screen, a foot or so in front, led to a gap that performers could duck under, before appearing, digitally, on the screen – an interactive backdrop that expanded the physical space where the dancing could occur, and which, the program proudly stated, had recently been patented by the Shen Yun company.
“The wall is fabulous,” Gwen said. “But it’s also ridiculous. The actors duck under the back wall and suddenly there’s a green-screen battle going on between a monkey and a warlock. There are even moments when no performers are physically there. At that point, we’re watching a movie.”
“Some of it works,” Dania said. “The archery one, where they stretch the bow and then when they release it, an arrow flies across the screen? That’s pretty good.”
“The arrow one was probably my favorite, to go back to that debate,” Eleanor said. “Good story, difficult dancing, interesting music. Interesting enough, anyway.”
“I think my favorite is either that one or the long sleeves women,” Dania said. She twirled around herself, imagining she had the billowing outfits they wore.
“Honestly,” Gwen said. “I think my favorite might be the last one, the one with the Evil Chinese Communists.”
Eleanor frowned. “Why?”
“Difficult to say,” Gwen responded. “I just think the very idea of having a story where the devout religious sect gets saved from literal tsunami armageddon through the power of belief is somewhat humorous to me.”
“Well, unless they’re using that image to scare and recruit people.”
“If they are.”
“I think the true MVP of the show is that piano player,” Dania said. “The one who backed the singers. She can play.”
“The whole orchestra was one of the strongest parts of the show,” Gwen said. “Apparently, they tour alone during the Shen Yun off-season, and garner some legitimate respect.”
“Are they also members of the Falun Dafa?” Dania asked.
“Hard to know,” Gwen said. “I don’t know how far the religious sect reaches into the production team.”
As Dania reached for her program again, Eleanor recollected the smile of the harpist during intermission. She had checked her program when she returned to her seat, but the harpist’s name was nowhere to be found.
“The conductor is from Bulgaria,” Dania reported. “And he’s been with them since 2012.”
How long had the harpist been there?, Eleanor wondered silently. Who was she?
Image Credit: Newark Happening