ROSEMONT, Ill.—Freedom. Freedom of belief, that’s what stood out about the Shen Yun Performing Arts’s performance for Captain Neil Swindells. The United Airlines pilot and his wife, Cheryl, saw the traditional Chinese music and dance company on Feb. 13, 2020, in Rosemont, Illinois, about 30 miles outside of Chicago.
In the United States, not in China. Despite its mission to revive ancient Chinese arts, steeped in traditions and values millennia-old, New York-based Shen Yun is not even allowed into the country once known as “Land of the Divine.”
Distill the traditional music and dance of Shen Yun to its essence, and at the bottom, it’s based on spiritual values such as courage and integrity, truthfulness and compassion, gentleness and conversely strength. These spiritual beliefs come across clearly in Shen Yun.
From the opening, when the background screen depicted “the Spirit” in the sky, as Mrs. Swindells noted, to the middle of the program when the soprano sings of salvation, as Mr. Swindells mentioned, the whole of the performance carried a spiritual message.
Mr. Swindells was a little surprised by that. It’s a “unique way to put across that spiritual message,” he said. “To come to a dance event where they’re giving that kind of information through dance, as well as through song, and with the visuals too, I think they’re getting their spiritual message across very well.”
Mr. Swindells has served on the Board of Directors of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), as chairman of the Chicago chapter of ALPA, as well as a director on the board of the ALPA Federal Credit Union, among other notable responsibilities.
“One of the freedoms that we have here is the freedom of religion, to believe what we want to believe in the safety of our home and the sanctity of our lives,” he said.
In China things are different. “In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party came to power. It saw this spiritual heritage as an ideological threat and for decades tried to destroy these traditions,” the program notes state.
Two of this year’s 16 dances tell stories of the persecution of people of faith in China today. Others showcase legends, such as that of the famous Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (701–762), who after experiencing a vision of celestial fairies, was inspired to write a poem.
“Oh, it’s beautiful, it’s absolutely beautiful,” Mrs. Swindells said. “The dancers were just—they tell the stories extremely well through just movement. You can really understand what’s going on.”
Not all of the dances are serious, though.
“One of the things that I was surprised by was they’ve put a little comedic element in there, you know. There are a few laughs every now and again … I think a little humor in there too goes a long way, especially with an American audience,” Mr. Swindell said.
In one such piece, “The Miraculous Flute,” a licentious official gets paid back for his bad behavior, many times over when his wife finds out what he’s been up to.
“The dancers were impeccable,” Mrs. Swindells said. “I absolutely love the performance and there’s so much to look at all at once, you could hardly take it in, it’s beautiful.”
As one of the emcees explained, the type of dance that Shen Yun is best known for is classical Chinese dance, with its signature tumbling, leaping, and flipping. The dance is fluid, often circular in movement, and extremely expressive.
“I appreciate [the] ease and grace of movements, it’s really something else,” she said.
Mr. Swindells had a similar idea: “Obviously, the dancers are technically perfect and everything is visually stunning.”
But what he mentioned most was Shen Yun mission’s to express their beliefs.
“It’s very important to know that people across the world are able to express their own beliefs, and they don’t live in a society where those beliefs are suppressed and sometimes violently suppressed. And I think we should all be aware of that, whether we believed in what they believe, or whether we believe in something else, it’s very important,” he said.
“I think it’s very important that people anywhere should get that opportunity.”
With reporting by Valerie Avore and Sharon Kilarski.