Shen Wei Dance Arts

'The Rite of Spring' and 'Folding'

by Holly Messitt

July 23, 2003 -- Lincoln Center Festival, LaGuardia Concert Hall, New York

Part of the power in Shen Wei's work lies in his ability to execute the unity of his vision. He choreographs. He designs his company's costumes. His paintings form the settings for his dances. We watch, in other words, the cohesiveness of an expansive mind, a new hybrid of Eastern and Western that brings freshness of vision even to music that may now seem overdone.

The first piece on the program during Shen Wei Dance Arts' three performances last week in the Lincoln Center Festival was "The Rite of Spring." Rather than using a traditional orchestral score for Stravinsky's music, Shen opted for a version with four hands for the piano played by Fazil Say. Say played one half of the score live accompanied by another section he pre-recorded himself for the "other" two hands.

The dance choreography set to this most Western music, was a cross between contemporary modern dance and Chinese opera, a tradition Shen inherited from his father and uncles who performed in Hunan Xian opera. Western viewer might not have recognized those Chinese elements immediately, however, since much of the movement felt at once familiar. The costuming also looked familiar to a Western viewer. In their gray and black costumes -- loose trousers and tight tees for the men, skirts or tight pants for the women, all with splatters of paint -- the dancers resembled hip downtown artists.

However, after watching long enough, I realized that all thirteen members of the company were on stage for most of the time. And except for once -- when Shen stepped out in front of the rest of the company -- no one danced alone. There were no pairings either and no principle dancers. A group of four or six dancers might work the same movement for a time, but the groups fell apart as one dancer inevitably started experimenting with another form of movement.

Yet even then, the dancers were always moving in relation to one another, always reacting spatially to another dancer's movement. Each step felt strategic, as if the dancers were trying to strike a balance between all the bodies in the space. For this piece, the company danced atop a painting by Shen, who has studied calligraphy. The long white brush strokes within the gray of the paining looked like the traces of the dancers' footwork.

If in many ways "The Rite of Spring" felt familiar, "Folding," the second piece of the evening, felt otherworldly -- neither Western nor Eastern. The dancers appeared on stage in the beginning of the piece two at a time. Using a quick heel/toe walk that relied on the whole foot to propel the movement, the dancers glided across the floor as one imagines a person might walk on water if that were possible. As each pair moved from the front of the stage to the back, turned and exited they were perfectly coordinated as if they were traveling along a set track, so straight were their lines and so precise were their turns. Each dancer wore a long straight skirt of red cloth folded in the back to form a panel that drifted out into a flowing train and a headpiece that that can only be described as beehive-shaped which made the dancers look alien, or perhaps aquatic against the backdrop of aqua blue, one large and two smaller fish painted on top of the blue, with little individuality.

In the last section of the piece, Shen brought a group of ten dancers onstage. With Shen standing in front of and away from the group, they began to fold their body parts in various ways. Dancers bent at the waist, elbow, or knee, then moved as a group toward the pitch black backdrop. Facing away from the audience, they built themselves into a background that appeared to have no depth, seeming weightless as they rose to form a human mandala. It was a stunning image to conclude an evening of some of the most interesting work happening in contemporary dance.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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