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Dancing to their own tune

Asian Pacific Post
January 08, 2009

An elaborate stage production showcasing China’s rich cultural history is little more than a showboat for  “anti-China propaganda” charge Chinese officials, as the show tours North America en route to Vancouver.
Drawing on the pages of history as well as the contemporary world, the critically-acclaimed production features an elite company of Chinese dancers, singers and musicians.
Together they perform a series of costumed vignettes before digitally projected Chinese landscapes meant to evoke celestial palaces, pastoral vistas and heroic struggles.
But some of those struggles, Beijing vehemently maintains, have no place in a globe-trotting arts extravaganza purporting to represent traditional Chinese culture.
China’s government has called the production “an insult and distortion” of that culture, and its consulates have pressured Canadian tourism bureaus to rescind support and officials in South Korean, New Zealand, Malaysia and elsewhere to revoke permits.
Divine Performing Arts, the New York-based nonprofit organization that runs the show, says the Chinese Communist Party is trying to erase from public consciousness some of the less savoury chapters in China’s modern history.
China’s fury, however, is not related to DPA’s re-staging of China’s imperial past or its inclusion of Taoist and Buddhist elements in its production, which arrives at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre for a seven-show run beginning April 3.
It has one target – Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, a meditative practice that since its 1992 founding is believed to have attracted more than 100 million followers worldwide. China banned it in 1999, a year after estimating that more than 70 million people – more members than are signed up with the 66 million-member Chinese Communist Party ­– practiced it.
The show’s local presenters are the Falun Dafa Association of Vancouver and New Tang Dynasty TV, a New York-based North American broadcaster founded by and affiliated with Falun Gong practitioners.
“The controversy and interference from the Chinese government is well known,” says Sue Zhang, spokesperson for the Falun Dafa Association of Vancouver.
“They go to those venues and tell them you cannot give this show. Some venues have even cancelled the contracts they signed. They kowtowed to those measures because of economic or political pressure. This kind of incident happens in many places.”
Zhang says the production weaves the various cultural threads of China’s 5,000-year history – including those of the Falun Gong movement – into a colourful tapestry meant to enliven human spirituality.
She says Falun Gong’s keystone principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance complement the ancient elements of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism also highlighted in the multi-million-dollar production.
“These elements are being lost or destroyed in China in the last six decades,” claims Zhang.
Practitioners of Falun Gong overwhelmingly refer to it as a spiritual discipline, not a religion. Indeed, the movement Li Hongzhi started has no hierarchy, no places of worship.
Zhang says she has “no idea” how many practitioners reside in Greater Vancouver, but estimates there are several hundred, if not thousands, of local members.
Many participants onstage and behind the scenes with the DPA performance, now in its sixth year, practice Falun Gong.
Past performances have included a handful of dances depicting Falun Gong practitioners passively resisting police and women being beaten in a prison.
There are relatively few documented cases of offended audience members, but some have questioned whether the organizations that produce and promote the shows are being forthright about Falun Gong’s place in them. Others have said the content is so varied as to make such disclosure irrelevant.
Falun Dafa Association of Vancouver’s legal counsel, lawyer Clive Ansley, has seen the performance and describes it as a refreshing change from the heavy-handed political  propaganda the Chinese government passes off as culture.
“When I saw it, there was one element in the finale, some references about standing up to hardship and standing up for principles,” says Ansley.
“You would have to be pretty politically plugged in to recognize it as political. I understand now, they do have one scene of Falun Gong practitioners being tortured.
“But within the context of the entire production it really is rather minor.”
Last year, DPA says, about 600,000 people attended performances. This year about 100 shows will be staged in more than 20 countries.
Representatives of the Chinese government have persuaded several venues around the world to cancel the show. In March, the Malaysian government withdrew a permit after Chinese embassy officials complained.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. quoted a Malaysian official as having said, “The show is nothing, but we’re scared of the influence behind it. We have to take care of our relationship with China.”
Politicians and other dignitaries often are invited to performances, but Chinese consulates have reportedly dissuaded several from attending. Last year, for example, the mayor of North Shore City in New Zealand decided to stay home when the consulate told him of Falun Gong’s role in the production.
Jingduan Yang, the Greater Philadelphia Falun Dafa Association’s spokesman, said on the eve of the show in his city that the production is not trying to proselytize Falun Gong.
“It’s not about Falun Gong,” said Yang, a psychiatrist.
“It’s about ancient, authentic Chinese legends and myths in artistic ways, to help people understand why truthfulness, compassion and tolerance are important. But this is not a show of propaganda for Falun Gong.”
A request for comment from the consulate general of the People’s Republic of China in Vancouver was not returned.

- With News Services

High profile letters of support for Divine Performing Arts

“I am pleased to send my warmest greetings to everyone celebrating the Chinese New Year at the Ottawa presentation of the Divine Performing Arts 2009 World Tour.
As Canadians, we take great pride in preserving the heritage of our ancestors, ensuring that succeeding generations will understand and appreciate their history. Whether Canadian by birth or by adoption, whether our roots extend beyond these borders or are just breaking ground, we gain invaluable knowledge about each other and ourselves by sharing our traditions, customs and beliefs.”

Michaëlle Jean,
Governor General of Canada

January 2009

“I am pleased to extend my warmest greetings to everyone attending the Divine Performing Arts - 2009 World Tour.
(The) event is a celebration of Chinese heritage, and the rich customs and classic tales that go with it. I am certain that the intricate costumes, brilliant choreography and outstanding musical compositions that you will be treated to . . . will be a wonderful reflection of the beauty and grandeur of 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture, and of the great pride felt by the Chinese Canadian community.”
Stephen Harper,
Prime Minister of Canada

January 2009

When: Friday April 3, 2009 - Wednesday April 8, 2009
Where: Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 600 Block Hamilton St., Vancouver.
Tickets: Online from TicketMaster or by phone at 604-454-1110
Ticket prices: $139, $119, $89, $69, $49, $39
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