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In return to Shea's, Shen Yun stays true to propagandist roots

Shen Yun, one of the most brazen pieces of religious propaganda currently touring North America, is back in town and stranger than ever.

After yet another blitzkrieg marketing campaign complete with misleading commercials, posters in countless shop windows, print ads, billboards and door-hangers, the religious infomercial for the Chinese sect known as Falun Gong is running for two performances in Shea's Performing Arts Center.

It's difficult to describe the technicolor oddities of the Shen Yun experience to someone who's never set eyes on it.

Think of it as a combination of a QVC show, the Mormon pageant at Hill Cumorah, an episode of "The 700 Club," a tripped-out game of "Mario Kart" and a Scientologist reunion.

Does this make any sense? Not really.

Though it bills itself as a display of 5,000 years of "classical Chinese dance," the production is an awkward attempt to proselytize to unsuspecting ticket-buyers about a rogue spiritual movement whose followers believe humanity is on a "ruinous course" because of "modern thoughts and values" such as homosexuality and miscegenation.

That message is packaged in skits making fun of effeminate schoolboys, religious songs warning of imminent apocalypse and reenactments of brutal violence against Falun Gong followers in their native China.

Little about the show has changed since the last time I saw it in 2010. It remains crushingly dishonest about its intentions and woefully underwhelming as a theatrical experience.

Gone are the rudimentary video backdrops of 2009, replaced with marginally more sophisticated projections of Chinese forests, mountains and cityscapes. Against this clunky digital backdrop, a series of dances and stories unfold, each drawn from some aspect of Chinese culture, religion or ethnicity.

The troupe, one of five companies touring simultaneously, is filled with able if not extraordinary dancers. The cultural significance of those dances, as explained in English and Mandarin by an effusive pair of emcees, holds undeniable interest for Westerners. But after 2 1/2 hours, the dancing often becomes repetitive, more an excuse to draw attention to the performers' brilliant costumes than especially moving as choreographic storytelling.

The refreshed version of Shen Yun also contains more humor -- or attempts at humor -- in new skits about schoolyard misbehavior and a failed robbery attempt at a modern temple. The hosts (not listed in the program) deliver creaky intros to most numbers, each one a failed effort to connect with the perceived comic sensibilities of American audiences.

The lighter tone of the production hardly blunts its central purpose: a series of messages about Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) embedded in exaggerated skits and songs that remain overbearing and disconcerting.

In "The Message," sung by soprano Tian Li and accompanied on piano by Jingya Mahlen, we get a taste of the true spirit of Falun Gong: "Humanity now takes a ruinous course," she sings. "Let not modern ideas and ways take you astray. Let not God's ways be forgotten."

Catchy stuff.

After more skits depicting Falun Gong followers being assaulted by communist thugs, tortured with a cattle prod and surgically blinded, it should become clear to audiences fairly quickly this show has about as much to do with ancient Chinese dance traditions as Jonestown had to do with basket-weaving.

Dance review

"Shen Yun"

Where: Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

When: Repeats at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Tickets: $80 to $150. Call 847-0850 or visit sheas.org.

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