Many who attend Shen Yun performances think they're seeing an extravaganza of Chinese dance and music distinguished by hypnotic, ever-present twirling sleeves — and nothing more.

But others who have experienced the heavily advertised show that rents out a Minneapolis theater for one weekend each year wonder why it seems somehow … off. Beneath all the colorful costume changes, pounding drumbeats and relentlessly repetitious acrobatic movements lies a political undercurrent that feels more like propaganda than straightforwardly presented cultural heritage.

There's no doubt that the New York-based Shen Yun, founded by members of the controversial Falun Gong belief system, has an agenda beyond entertainment. Whether it's a public service, fundraising propaganda or simply benign self-promotion depends on whom you ask.

Falun Gong is a spiritual practice founded in China that blends meditation and physical exercise, inspired in part by Buddhism. After rapid growth and massive demonstrations by Falun Gong followers during the 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party began a suppression campaign, banning the practice and jailing, torturing and attempting to re-educate thousands of followers.

David Davies, an associate professor for anthropology and East Asian studies at Hamline University in St. Paul, was in Beijing during the 1999 crackdown. He said the problem the Chinese government has with Falun Gong isn't an issue of freedom of religion, but rather the threat to leadership posed by its ability to organize large numbers of believers across the country.

Misleading or harmless?

Shen Yun was founded in 2006 by Falun Gong expats living in the United States. Davies attended a Minneapolis performance last year, after becoming curious about all the fliers and requests for testimonials spamming his mailbox.

He calls the troupe a fund­raising vehicle for Falun Gong, a sort of combo of a "Wild East Show and a Billy Graham traveling tent show" that sensationalizes a culture most Americans aren't familiar enough with to separate fact and fiction.

"They blend the aesthetic of silk-robed, exotic dancing Chinese women with a strong political message, a Cold War narrative of religious oppression," Davies said. "They call it Chinese culture, but that's a more difficult thing to nuance. It's a heavily managed propaganda device for Falun Gong."

David Ownby, author of the 2008 book "Falun Gong and the Future of China," agrees, but doesn't see that as an automatic negative.

"It is propaganda, but it's propaganda that tells the truth," said Ownby, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Montreal. "They have been beat up and tortured by the Chinese government, and Western journalists have stopped telling the story."

While Shen Yun develops new dances each year, it relies on a formula of alternating lighthearted whimsy with darker demonstrations of persecution, such as one scene depicting a band of thuggish Communist enforcers arresting women in a park for meditating.

"Is it good art? Not necessarily," Ownby said. "And I don't know if it's the best way to get their message across to Western audiences."

Made in America

Falun Dafa, often used interchangeably with the term Falun Gong, is the organizational structure behind the practice. Practitioners bristle at being called a cult. But some of their communication strategies carry a strong whiff of cultlike control issues, including avoidance of media requests to explain their side (attempts to reach Shen Yun for this story were unanswered), stringent policing of images that forced the use of a five-year-old Associated Press photo to accompany this story, vague platitudes in lieu of specific descriptions and the assertion that their made-in-America show is a more authentic ambassador of "5,000 years of Chinese culture" than cultural-entertainment exports actually based in China.

"The thing that irritates Chinese people everywhere is the specious claim that they're representing traditional culture," Ownby said. "They don't, but they don't do any harm. I grew up among seven Baptists, and they had strange beliefs, too."

Shen Yun also aggressively solicits "greetings" from people in powerful positions, then passes them off as endorsements. The eyebrow-raising number of notables listed in the glossy programs of recent years, featuring their photos and enthusiastic messages, have included Hollywood celebrities, mayors and academics, as well as Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both DFLers.

The implication is that those pictured are fans of the troupe, or at the very least supporters, but that's more likely the exception than the rule. Contacted for comment, representatives of Klobuchar and Franken (neither of whom has attended a Shen Yun performance), characterized their messages as being a typical diplomatic gesture when such comments are solicited by any international cultural group.

Barbara Frey, director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota, sends a greeting that is printed in Shen Yun's Minneapolis program each year. While she has not attended a show, she said that Shen Yun provides "a way to explain the persecution of the Falun Gong to a broader American audience, to try to keep focusing attention on it."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046