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Friday, January 07, 2011

Shen Yun dance troupe sheds light on Falun Gong

Seattle Times - It's a feast for the eyes, yet shrouded in controversy.

Dozens of dancers take the stage this week, leaping in colorful costumes, when Shen Yun Performing Arts comes to Seattle's McCaw Hall.

The New York troupe has performed all over the world, except for its homeland, China, where the members' beliefs are for all intents and purposes illegal.

Many Shen Yun members, says founding member Ben Freed, are Falun Gong practitioners, though the dance group has no official connection with the religion.

The Chinese government banned followers of Falun Gong in 1999, which it considers a dangerous cult with political overtones.

Falun Gong is a "meditation practice about truthfulness, compassion and tolerance that embodies daily life," says Freed, 26. "Shen Yun means divine spirit. The dancers imitate divine beings dancing."

Back in January, Shen Yun canceled performances in Hong Kong after crew members were denied visas. The first time Shen Yun came to Seattle's Paramount Theatre a couple of years ago, it drew protesters for and against the group.

The Chinese government, says Freed, is "afraid because Falun Gong is so popular. It speaks to many Chinese people ... but it's not what the government prescribes, and they are very terrified to have their power taken away. When people come see our show, they will understand what is right and wrong and the freedom of expression."

Freed's dancers are mostly from Europe, North America and Taiwan. The ones from China left their families and claimed refugee status, Freed says. One performer's husband was kidnapped when he tried to leave China, because of his wife's involvement with the troupe.

Shen Yun's show addresses some of these issues directly. The goal, says Freed, is to revive "true genuine traditional Chinese values and aesthetics," through artistic performance. A lot of those values, he says, were lost when the Cultural Revolution swept through China, with its practice of "destroying the four olds" — customs, cultures, habits and ideas.

Over the past five years, the company has grown from one company to three, with around 250 performing all over the world. Each show takes a half year to create, from start to finish. The troupe of 90 coming to Seattle is bringing some 400 props, including jewelry and handmade costumes. The production includes 20 routines made up of traditional dance styles from China and its neighbors, such as Tibet and Korea.

Freed started as a dancer for Shen Yun. He now works as one of the show's emcees, presenting and translating performances. Struggling with severe tendinitis, the former guitarist hoped to break into the music business. But when Western medicine didn't help his condition, he turned to Eastern medicine and found Falun Gong.

"The meditation exercises helped me regain my health and also find this new passion for art and culture," says Freed. "Coming from a Jewish background, there are really a lot of connections in my culture there to bring along. It makes a lot of sense and is a fun exploration for me ... and the human rights aspect makes it even more meaningful."

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