Art and politics can be strange bedfellows

5 Jul

That’s certainly the case for the People’s Republic of China and the Divine Performing Arts Dance Troupe, a New York-based Chinese collective performing for the first time in Calgary tonight.

As the company has toured across North America and the world, a behind-the-scenes battle of information and propaganda has been raging with the Chinese government. Now that the company has made its way to Calgary, that struggle has found its way here as well.

It’s an odd confrontation for a company that bills itself as a traditional Chinese performing arts group with a laudable goal.

“When people think about Chinese cultural performances they tend to think of the acrobats and dragons, but they are very superficial aspects of Chinese culture,” says Caylan Ford, Divine’s Calgary-based organizer.

“This show is somewhat different. It’s still extraordinary to watch, but for different reasons. The mission of this show is to try and revive the true essence of traditional Chinese culture with moral and spiritual traditions.”

But the Chinese government has a conflicted relationship with those traditions, and when spirituality is thrown in the mix, things get complicated.

More than 100 Divine dancers and musicians dazzle audiences with elaborate costumes, an exotic orchestra and traditional dance that incorporates theories of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucius, and — and this is where the controversy comes in — Falun Gong.

This spiritual faith is based in Chinese traditions and quickly won millions of adherents in China and around the world after it was introduced by pioneer Li Hongzhi in 1992. Since then, practitioners have a long and well-documented list of human rights violations they say have been perpetrated against them by the Chinese government.

Because of those connections to Falun Gong — one scene, for example, features a Falun Gong practitioner ascending to the sky after being killed by Chinese police — members of the Divine Performing Arts Dance Troupe say they have been dogged and bullied by the Chinese government throughout their tour of 34 cities this year.

They allege the Chinese consulate in Calgary is pressuring local audiences to stay away from the performance because of its association with Falun Gong.

Ford claims shopkeepers in Calgary’s Chinatown have been asked to take down posters advertising the show, or have had the posters torn down. She also says she knows of people who were incorrectly warned by the consulate that the show contained graphic scenes depicting organ harvesting.

“A few months ago, a member of the Chinese Consulate of Calgary told me that they intended to do whatever they could to crush the show or minimize the impact of the show if ever we brought it to Calgary. This was before we even confirmed that it would come,” says Ford, who would not give the official’s name for fear it would “endanger his safety and job security in some way.”

Despite the accusations, however, there is little evidence.

The Chinese Consulate of Calgary would not comment on this story, but tickets for the show are selling briskly, posters can be found in many shop windows in Chinatown, and there is evidence of support from the community.

The Herald contacted several shopkeepers in Chinatown, who are currently displaying posters in their windows. None have been asked to remove them.

“I’ve seen a lot of these posters around Chinatown,” says Catherine Chan, co-ordinator of the Chinese Cultural Centre, which has a Divine sign posted on a wall.

“I have not heard anything from (the consulate) about this.”

Organizers of the show said a poster was torn from the walls of Chinatown restaurant Damascus Shawarma, but when asked about the incident, owner Harp Kaddora said it was nothing more than vandals from the neighbourhood.

“It’s graffiti and it happens all the time,” says Kaddora, who has never been contacted by the Chinese consulate.

“I have other signs that were ripped down, too. That’s why I asked them to put them inside the window so the kids can’t make a mess.”

Other members of Calgary’s Chinese community say they don’t support the show on their own volition.

One local business owner, who asked not to be named, said she refused to advertise for Divine, not because of pressure from the consulate, but because she disapproves of its association with Falun Gong.

“This is religious stuff and I don’t feel comfortable advertising for them,” she says. “I’m neutral; I don’t lean towards China or the religious side. But they aren’t truthful about it.”

Falun Gong is closely linked to Chinese traditions, but in fact, you wouldn’t know Divine was so closely linked to Falun Gong unless you did your homework. Ford, who is co-ordinating Divine in Calgary, is also a Falun Gong practitioner and one of the main Calgary organizers.

Divine is produced by New Tang Dynasty Television, a U.S.-based independent, nonprofit Chinese language broadcaster that has upset the Chinese government with coverage of human rights abuses against Falun Gong members and its criticism of the Chinese Communist party.

Earlier this year the network, made headlines consular officials were launching a campaign to stop the network from airing in Canada.

It is currently available on satellite.

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