Freedom of Expression and Belief Comes Alive in Shen Yun
OKLAHOMA CITY—The story of Shen Yun Performing Arts is a quintessentially American one: a group of oppressed artists was motivated by the quest for liberty to seek freedom of belief and expression on distant shores. Based in New York, Shen Yun now has seven touring groups that bring their performances to numerous countries. Unfortunately, China, the homeland of Shen Yun’s cultural origin, is not one of them, since oppression there is still strong, and Shen Yun is sadly unwelcome.
But many who see Shen Yun in places like the United States recognize the lengths the artists had to go to in order to overcome the pressure and obstacles between them and their freedom, and it sometimes brings theatergoers to tears.
Ladonna Graziano is a former air force major and communications contractor for the United States government who was deeply touched when she saw Shen Yun’s performance in Oklahoma City on Feb. 18, 2020.
“[Shen Yun] was very emotional and moving. I liked the colors. And everything was just, like, emotional. And it was moving and nice to see people trying to support their spirit and their religion against government—communism, yes—government dictatorship,” said Graziano, who attended Shen Yun at the Civic Center Music Hall that evening with her mother, Deloras Shield.
Shen Yun’s mission goes beyond presenting beauty on stage; its goal is to revive China’s traditional and divinely-inspired culture and share it with the world through art forms such as classical Chinese dance, bel canto singing, and live orchestral compositions.
Key to this is China’s spiritual essence, an inextricable part of China’s authentic culture. It is this spirituality that the Chinese Communist Party targets most severely, seeing it as a threat to its own legitimacy and power. In its program, Shen Yun often incorporates scenes of spiritual practitioners inside China and the persecution they face at the hands of the CCP for adhering to their faith.
Graziano appreciated these scenes very much out of Shen Yun’s roughly 20 short vignettes which include ancient legends, humorous stories, and ethnic and folk dances. To express herself, she referenced the meaning of the words “Shen Yun” themselves: “the beauty of divine beings dancing.”
“[Shen Yun’s divine beauty] just brings emotion,” Graziano said. “I’m glad they could come to America and live their dreams, and express their emotions and religion publicly without condemnation.”
“I had wanted to see this for many years and I never had a chance to and I thought this would be, you know, 2020, a great opportunity to finally get to see it,” she added.
“My daughter invited me, and brought me,” Shield said. “Actually it should be for her, it’s her birthday next week, but she did this for her mom.”
A piece that will stay with Graziano and Shield long after the curtains closed is one titled “Water Sleeves.” Her mother even noted that the long flowing sleeves the dancers toss into the air like scarves resemble the wish for and feeling of freedom they must feel for their cultural homeland, China.
“Yes, I like the bright colors [in Water Sleeves]. It matches the cherry blossoms,” Graziano said. “I used to live in [Washington] DC, … It matches DC, the pink and the green mixed together, and the costumes match the background. Very beautiful, flowing.”
“And the flow of the long sleeves and things, as they were going around,” Shield began, “showed the freedom that they feel and wanted in their own hearts and they were really expressing that, and for their country. Going through some of the things they are going through right now, it really is rough.”
Graziano spoke again about the visual aspect of the performance before elaborating on the significance of Shen Yun freedom of expression.
The dancing, she said, “Oh, it’s beautiful. Very beautiful. Very artistic and eclectic. Both the males and the females are incredible—wish I could do that. Very talented.”
“It was beautiful: costumes, the lighting, everything was beautiful,” she said.
‘Keep This Up’
What touched Graziano’s emotions most is “that people are able to come to America or countries of Europe to express their emotions and their artistic ability, their spiritual, whether it be guidance or God, or just their religion freely.”
Shen Yun’s artists walk in the footsteps of their ancestors by practicing a type of spiritual discipline that includes daily meditation and moral principles. Falun Dafa is the name of the ancient discipline they’ve adopted, and they say it enhances their artistry and increases their skills on stage.
Graziano felt a common thread between her own values and those of Falun Dafa, which can be seen in some of Shen Yun’s stories.
“I believe in God, I’m Christian. I believe in spiritual growth. I believe in people’s ability or emotions, freedom to express their spiritual beliefs.
“I think this show has a positive impact on the world, definitely. I think art brings everything together. Politics, religion, anything—I think it brings love, the world, earth, you know, trying to protect the world and everything, together. I think art brings everything together.”
Shield echoed her daughter’s sentiments.
“[Shen Yun] was very warm, and as she said, an emotional feeling to know that they don’t always have that freedom to come and express their selves like they did.
“It is so sad that they can’t do this dance and performance in China. Glad they are able to do this and that they are going to continue going around, taking their message of love and freedom and religion and that it speaks to us of what we take for granted … having that freedom too.
“You want to almost cheer them on, ‘keep this up, you’re doing a great job.’ The music and the flow of everything was just so exquisite. Just, they all work together and that’s what they have to do to achieve what they’re wanting their desires. And so it just was amazing to me how they were able to do that,” Shield said.
The inspiring message Graziano said she will take from Shen Yun is “just to be able to keep believing in your beliefs and your ability to express your emotions and—be a free person.”
Lastly, Graziano praised the baritone singer of the evening, whose song was inspired by a legend from China that tells how we’re all from heaven and need to find our way back. She was inspired and liked the message she read in the lyrics.
“Very good. He was incredible. Very deep and moving,” she said. “Expressing his emotions, not being able to express his feelings in his own country, but he was able to do it here.”
With reporting by Sherry Dong and Brett Featherstone.
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