Chinese New Year Splendor at Radio City Music Hall is billed as “a spectacular showcase of classical Chinese performing arts accompanied by a full orchestra and a dazzling high-tech backdrop,” and in most respects, that’s probably true.
The show comprises a series of musical and dance performances, each with elaborate costumes and an accompanying video projection that features a pastel-colored landscape of mountains, lakes, Chinese pagodas, or flowering cherry trees that would make the Teletubbies feel at home.
In between each performance, a pair of Chinese announcers (unconvincingly introduced as “Jerry” and “Kelly,” in tuxedo and floor-length gown, respectively) provide a bilingual commentary on the cultural significance of each piece, punctuated by amiable jokes (a piece about dreams prompts Jerry to remark about his dream of opening a seafood restaurant in Flushing) and exhortations to learn a bit of Chinese.
So it’s easy to believe that you are watching a celebration of Chinese history and traditions, likely sanctioned and promoted by the government as a way to spread awareness of its performing arts. But fairly soon the show takes on a didactic and preachy flavor, particularly when the lyrics to some of the songs (which make repeated references to Truthfulness, Benevolence, and Forbearance) are translated into English and projected onto the giant video screen.
Soon Jerry tells the audience that this program could not be seen in China because of its repressive government. The dance performances become explicit enactments of torture and imprisonment at the hands of black-clad evildoers. The show culminates in a particularly unsettling sequence set in an urban park, a vision of utopia in which modestly dressed citizens are enlightened by the ideals of living in harmony.
The show, as noted in the Times, is an outreach of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that is banned in China. I did notice a number of people leaving, as mentioned in the article, but I didn’t realize they were likely objecting to the content of the show. During intermission and after the show, interviewers from New Tang Dynasty Television, which produced the show, approached audience members for their reactions.
The full realization of what we had seen didn’t unfold until later, and although it doesn’t particularly bother me, I’m surprised that I was so slow to recognize propaganda – wholly unapologetic and on a gargantuan scale.