Falun Gong, banned in China, finds a loud protest voice in the U.S. through Shen Yun dance troupe

By Jessican Gelt for the Los Angeles Times

The cavernous Long Beach Terrace Theater echoes with classical Chinese music as more than a dozen dancers expertly manipulate colorful fans that sweep like wind and snap like fire. In precise formation they coalesce into a river of dance inspired by Chinese history, legend, myth and literature.

The performers are serious and determined. The only direction they receive comes from a calm woman dressed in black, standing near the theater's center. She speaks in Mandarin — her words few, her manner direct.

It's rehearsal time for Shen Yun Performing Arts, a touring dance troupe founded in New York by practitioners of Falun Gong, the spiritual practice banned by the Chinese Communist Party in 1999.

The party calls it a cult; Falun Gong says the Chinese government is trying to eradicate thousands of years of culture and tradition and that its repression of Shen Yun shows an intolerance of freedom of expression and religion. Indisputably, the dance company — marking its 10th anniversary — has become a cultural phenomenon.

A single company has grown to four troupes that perform each year in more than 100 cities in 30-plus countries. In Southern California, Shen Yun stages more than 30 shows a year. The group will perform in Claremont on Saturday and Sunday, followed by stops in Costa Mesa, Northridge, Bakersfield and the Microsoft Theater in downtown L.A., ending April 29-30 in Santa Barbara.

"The show is 5,000 years of culture in one night," said Felipe Sena, a creative director for a fragrance company who caught a performance at Lincoln Center in New York in March. "The colors are amazing, the message is very lyrical and clear."

Many go to the performances unaware of the political undertones to the shows, even though one or two dances deal directly with Falun Gong's clash with the Chinese Communist Party.

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