Gong show 

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Sadly, we live in a world of ever-increasing deceit. Despite — or likely because of — the lightning-fast dissemination of information, ever more within our daily purview is portrayed dishonestly in order to gain attention. This ol' bait-and-switch is nothing new, but where once only associated with criminal enterprise, it has slowly become a legitimized norm.

"Coercion creep" is why I ignore solicitous promotions, distrust commercial enterprises and take little at face value. I thus have few experiences of being "taken in" by false advertising or commercial cons. So imagine my surprise when a sector of supposed integrity pulled a fast one to the tune of $75 a head. Yes, a funny thing happened at a so-called dance performance at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre last Saturday: I was sandbagged by a cult.

Let me explain. My partner's mother had seen an ad for the upcoming Shen Yun Performing Arts show promising "5,000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage!" Given the world-renowned operas and ballets we'd attended at QET, it sounded intriguing. The costuming and high-flying dancers in the marketing collateral looked great, so tickets were obtained and off we went. Pity we didn't think to check reviews on Ticketmaster, but hey, it was QET so it had to be a professional endeavour, right? Wrong.

From the bible-camp enthusiasm of the Oriental Barbie and her white, Chinese-speaking Ken who emerged from behind a curtain to introduce each number, red flags appeared faster than a round of mini-golf. Turns out the show's presenter — the Falun Dafu Association of Vancouver — is self-referential terminology for practitioners of Falun Gong, the 1992 conceived, mind-body-celestial meditative practice based on the values of Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance (T, C & F). Seen as inciting against communist rule, the group has been outlawed and actively repressed in the People's Republic of China since 1999, forcing it to take its fight abroad. (Recall the tireless Gong Show that sat daily protest outside the Chinese embassy on Granville Street for years.)

Rather than bore you with the amateurish details, published reviews (none positive) epitomize the steam soon emanating from our ears: "forgettable," "disappointing," "propaganda masquerading as culture," and "a complete waste of time and $$$!"

Although sympathetic to the persecution of any group over its beliefs, it was blatantly dishonest for QET/Shen Yun to promote such thinly disguised propaganda as a purely cultural experience. Were there a priori disclosure, perhaps we wouldn't have found ourselves paying a premium to be held hostage to a political message.

Not that any of us is the least sympathetic to PRC's ruling communist despots, but as one reviewer noted, "Sarah Crompton writes in the 15 January 2014 Daily Telegraph, the Falun Gong message 'is the focal point of the evening'. There is no hint that this 'politically motivated performance [will be] smuggled onto stage as family entertainment'. Local hard-sell Falun Gong groups sponsor and pay for the event and the performers are also practitioners."

In fact, New York-based Shen Yun is propped up by loaded ex-pats willing to get their costly anti-PRC message out via dozens of highly trained performers, a 90-piece symphony orchestra and considerable CGI projected on a stage-sized screen.

Scholars debate whether Falun Gong contains an apocalyptic message, but Shen Yun shares no such equivocation, as witnessed in its undisguised finale, "The Divine Renaissance Begins." In this bizarre scene, twirling, yellow-shirted Gongers happily minding their own compassion-addled business in a contemporary urban setting are set upon by club-swinging emissaries of the Red Menace. After requisite beatings, a giant background volcano explodes, obliterating the city and, metaphorically, the cancerous industrial, military and political morass of modern China. Smoke gives way to hope when a shimmering male deity flies down from his heavenly La-Z-Boy with the digital ham-fistedness of a school-play Peter Pan to alight on the scorched Earth, bathing both devoted and converted in a Beam of Benevolence that delivers a final lobotomizing dose of T, C & F.

Buddha-like buddy was clearly the much-ballyhooed Lord of Fa, described in teachings as being above all gods, and damned if this badass SOB didn't just smite both unbelievers and modern evil in one catastrophic hissy fit: Dafa is all harmonizing / Heaven and Earth stand rectified / The Lord of Fa, in his compassion / created the colossal firmament.

A nice campfire story for mossy stalwarts camped outside the Chinese embassy, but rather than portraying historical tenets of traditional Chinese culture and its derived dance, Shen Yun offers only platitudinous mythological beliefs and selective interpretations in a decidedly subjective context. Furthermore, wince-worthy setups by the preternaturally giddy hosts — eager to reiterate how Gongers can't practice T, C & F in their own country — expose the show for what it actually is: unbridled proselytizing.

You can't blame a group for an elaborate staging of their political message, but you can take them to task for a disingenuous, subliminal vehicle, and the venue for its shameless aiding and abetting. How much did Falun Wrong pay QET for this back-door delivery? The ultimate irony is that once all the T, C & F had been pocketed, there was none on offer for the audience.

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