Arts group says China pressuring L.A. to thwart its theater bid

The Shen Yun performing arts organization went aggressively on the offensive Thursday, claiming it is being stonewalled by government officials as it tries to pursue building a huge theater and residential complex on a redevelopment site in downtown Los Angeles that’s now earmarked for Eli Broad’s contemporary art museum.

The enigmatic U.S.-based group tours internationally in major venues with dance shows that combine Chinese tradition and modern spectacle.

Shen Yun held a news conference a block west of the museum site at Grand Avenue and 2nd Street to complain that officials won’t give a fair hearing to the group’s competing proposal for a 3,000-seat theater and a 454-foot-high residential tower for students who would train at the theater to join Shen Yun’s troupes.

Spokesmen for the group upped the ante afterward by injecting a high-profile political and human rights issue into what had been a downtown development question. Shizhong Chen and Winston Xia said in an interview that they suspect the Chinese government of trying “to intimidate” local officials and the L.A. business community to stop Shen Yun from building the center.

Shen Yun, whose name means Divine Performing Arts, has close ties to the Falun Gong religious movement that is banned in China. Its shows, which span millenniums of Chinese history and performance styles, have included pointed anticommunist scenes. According to published reports in Ireland, Sweden and Taiwan, Chinese embassies along the group’s international touring itinerary have protested performances or tried to stop them, succeeding once in South Korea.

In May, as Shen Yun performed in Toronto, the Globe and Mail newspaper quoted a press officer with the Chinese Consulate there: “We strongly oppose this kind of performance. We hope that local people, especially politicians, do … not watch that kind of false performance.”

Officials connected with the Grand Avenue Project sharply denied that China was pressuring them or that it could.

“The allegations are preposterous,” said Joanna Rose, spokeswoman for the Related Cos., the project’s developer, which Shen Yun complains failed to take its proposal seriously after an April meeting. New York-based Related has a Shanghai branch that, according to the company’s website, is working on a wide range of residential and commercial projects in China.

Jan Perry, the Los Angeles councilwoman whose district includes the Grand Avenue Project site and who is vice chairwoman of the Grand Avenue Authority, the combined state and local agency that oversees the project, dismissed the notion of any Chinese government interference.

“It’s a fantasy; it’s silly,” she said.

Perry caught a Shen Yun show earlier this month during the group’s most recent stop at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “I thought it was beautiful,” she said. But in the dance of downtown development, she said, Shen Yun needs to secure a site before expecting close official consideration. “Once you have site control, that means you are serious.”

If Shen Yun wants to be part of the Grand Avenue Project, she said, it has to go through Related, which was chosen as the developer in 2004. Perry said that Shen Yun seems “fixated” on the site at 2nd and Grand and that she has suggested the group consider other downtown locations.

During Thursday’s news conference, Shen Yun’s Chen hinted at a degree of flexibility. Although it still wants to build at 2nd and Grand, he said, the group might consider using one of the other Grand Avenue Project sites.

“Make more parcels available for immediate development,” he said. “Let those who are willing get started right away.”

Chen deflected questions about Shen Yun’s ability to build and sustain a venue that clearly would cost hundreds of millions of dollars just to construct. He said the group would present its financial credentials when its proposal gets an official hearing.

Scant evidence of Shen Yun’s financial bona fides was immediately available. The Cuddebackville, N.Y.-based group’s only available federal nonprofit tax return is from 2008, its second year in existence, and shows revenue of just $3 million. But the group’s track record of mounting hundreds of performances globally suggests it has resources. Other venues it has played include New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the Orange County Performing Arts Center and Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Divine Performing Arts’ financial statement says its mission is “to carry forward the goodness of Falun Dafa” (another name for Falun Gong) while breathing new life into ancient Chinese cultural traditions. Xia said there is no institutional connection between Shen Yun and Falun Gong; he said it would be more correct to think of it as akin to musicians who identify with Christian ideals but don’t represent a denomination.