Shen Yun at the Hammersmith Apollo

An evening of traditional music, dancers and singers from the Shen Yun school of performing arts.

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The dancing combines the elegance of ballet with the athleticism of gymnastics, all in beautiful technicolour costumes. Highlights include a number where the dancers balance porcelain vases on their heads, a sleeve dance reminiscent of House of Flying Daggers and a battle between a scorpion and a monkey.

A western orchestra is combined with a selection of Eastern instruments, including a brilliant solo on a two stringed Erhu, surely one of the most beautiful instruments in existence. Designed to showcase Chinese culture, the performances are connected by a pair of awkward hosts speaking English and Chinese, who feel like a sign of things to come if China ever enter Eurovision.shen-yun.jpg

But the underlying purpose is to promote Falun Gong, a religious philosophy banned in modern China. The school is based in New York, and the show extols the country’s pre-Communist culture, yearning for its imperial past. The religious guff is mostly below the surface, until a mercifully short song by a dodgy tenor and a not-so-subtle couple of sequences in which people are repressed by hammer and sickle clad guards.

But while the repression of the current Chinese administration is shown, it’s not clear which era the organisation would prefer, given the Chinese imperial dynasties are a veritable smorgasbord of some of the most oppressive regimes in history.

Perhaps they’d like to go back to the Ming dynasty, where crimes could be punished not just with execution of the perpetrator, but up to 15 degrees of family. Many  of these executions were carried out by ‘slow slicing’ with records of 3,000 separate incisions being made in a single execution.

It’s ironic that the preachy religious bits are also the most hokey and embarrassing, particularly when their prophet or saviour comes onstage at the end as a bewildered-looking middle aged man, who I’m not sure convinced much of the audience at the Hammersmith Apollo. What results is something like a Zhang Yimou film meets a Scientology recruitment video.

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