Calgary’s Jubilee Limiting Artists’ ‘Expressive freedom,’ Says Rights Lawyer

May 1, 2012 Updated: May 1, 2012


Winnipeg-based international human rights lawyer David Matas says Calgary’s Jubilee Auditorium is limiting the “expressive freedom” of artists by imposing the use of a net over the orchestra pit for shows by Shen Yun Performing Arts.

 Shen Yun, a world-renowned classical Chinese dance and music company based in New York, features a unique orchestra combining classical western and Chinese instruments that is very much an integral part of the show.

The dance company has performed in hundreds of venues around the world without any requirement to have a net over the orchestra pit.

“The theatre should not impose structures to limit art groups’ expressive freedom or to prevent the content of their expressions,” Matas wrote in a letter to Heather Klimchuk, Alberta’s Minister of Culture and Community Spirit who oversees the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium (SAJA).

“Arts groups have a constitutional right to freedom of expression. This right to freedom of expression has both form and a content component.”

The use of the net was first imposed by SAJA’s management in 2010, even though no reference was made in the contract to any such net, Matas noted.

“This has been so even though liability waivers were offered and performers held personal injury insurance. There would have been no liability for the theatre in case of injury due to absence of a net,” he said.

In fact, SAJA’s requirement for the net violates the contract, which spells out that the minister warrants that the premises will be provided in a good state of repair.

“The throwing of a net over the orchestra pit means that this provision is violated,” Matas said.

The net hinders the interaction between the musicians and the dancers, and since its use means the pit needs to be positioned much lower, the orchestra is further away from the view of the audience, Matas said.

“In addition, the musicians felt disrespected playing under such a net, as it was akin to being displayed in a cage,” he added.

Unreasonable Infringement

Citing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Matas said the theatre must not infringe on the freedom of Shen Yun’s artistic expression unless the “infringement falls within reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

In this case, however, he said the net “is not a reasonable limit on freedom of expression because its enforcement would have the effect of preventing Shen Yun performers from expressing themselves in the manner of their choice in an unreasonable way not demonstrably justified.”

The local Calgary presenter of Shen Yun, the Falun Dafa Association of Calgary, said “unprofessional” and “insulting” behaviour from SAJA’s management might mean that Shen Yun won’t return to Calgary next year.

The presenter said the mistreatment began in 2010 when theatre management first required the use of the net, but the unprofessional behaviour reached new levels this year.

 Disturbing incidents this year during shows on April 8 and 9 included a major lighting error during the all-important first act and a male stage worker walking into the changing space of young female dancers.

What concerned the artists and the local presenter was the “dismissive” response from the Jubilee’s management, who laughed the matter off instead of taking it seriously.