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Swimming Rite

- Interview with Shen Wei

by Donald Hutera


Born in China, and with an extensive background in Chinese Opera, 36 year-old Shen Wei has lived in New York City since 1995. He is a painter and choreographer, as well as a performer in his own young company, Shen Wei Dance Arts. Umbrella is bringing a contrasting pair of his works to London.

Shen Wei is articulate about his place in the world as an artist. ‘I was asked, “Are you trying to make new things out of Chinese Opera?” I never thought that. It would never work. Everything I do is from my experience, in my blood. If something excites me, it comes out of me as what it is. To me, my work doesn’t look Chinese or Asian. I don’t see things so separately. It’s a piece of art. It communicates with human beings.’

As a boy, Shen Wei trained in calligraphy and Chinese Opera. Failing to be admitted to the Beijing Fine Arts Academy, he eventually became a founding member of Guangdong Modern Dance Company, China’s first professional contemporary troupe. It was there that Shen Wei began to choreograph, evincing a big, prize-winning talent. Unfortunately the authorities were unable to appreciate it. Honesty being one of the qualities Shen Wei values most, he had made a dance critical of his country’s repressive politics. He also violated a taboo by being friendly with some visiting Taiwanese dancers. His untenable situation, coupled with an American scholarship, led to Shen Wei’s migration to Manhattan.

‘To me,my work doesn’t look Chinese or Asian. I don’t see things so separately. It’s a piece of art. It communicates with human beings.’ Originally fashioned for Guangdong and presented a few years ago at the Brighton Festival, Shen Wei’s "Folding" is a visually striking dance. With its stately, eddying pace, the piece has an undeniable grandeur of vision and an air of deceptively pacific ritual. The score is a blend of Tibetan Buddhist chants and gentle, brooding instrumentals by John Tavener. The dancers, regal and androgynous even when bare-chested, are the crawling, floating and swimming inhabitants of an underwater world. Heads are encased in mollusc-like caps, powdered bodies swathed in voluminous red or black fabric that trails behind like fins. Some move butoh-style, slow as snails. Others are joined together beneath the skins of fabric like cantilevered creatures with two heads, or seemingly single, whale-like entities. At one point the whole lot gaze upwards, heads tilted back and throats exposed, like a stricken shoal of fish. Their movement throughout is measured and undulant in turn, yet built out of shapes that may be stretched out or bent over and twisted.

When I remark to Shen Wei that the dance reminds me of both air and water, he refers to the pressure of oxygen. ‘Basically the piece has to do with air, water, breath, time, memory, past, future’, he explains. Where Folding is sculptural, Shen Wei’s take on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is visceral. This seminal score has become a rite-of-passage for choreographers everywhere. Shen Wei first heard it in 1989. Using Fazil Say’s two-piano rendition, he has said that he is responding to the melodic and rhythmic qualities of the music, rather than the story it tells.

Here the action occurs on a scored floor. The dancers drift on slowly, milling about multidirectionally with seeming randomness. Some of them even kneel quietly. But, when required, they cross the space fast, sometimes with quick little steps. Some twitch and flip acrobatically into explosive motion. Groups run unevenly forward and back, on and off. Repeatedly they may reach up and drop down, or plunge into nervous slides. And sometimes they stand stock still, facing us as the music blasts on thrillingly. All the violent dynamic shifts in actions suggest chaos. It is as if the dancers’ actions are being triggered by a collective internal force or, perhaps, something greater outside themselves. Shen Wei feels he could ‘make fifty or one hundred choreographies out of Stravinsky’s music, because it always keeps shifting. It’s an incredible challenge.’ But it fits in with the balance he’d like to strike in his work between exactitude and intuition: ‘As in unstaged life, alongside that which is definite, there will always exist the coincidental, the uncontrollable, the chance happening.’

His company of a dozen dancers, only two of whom are of Asian origin, is employed full-time. Their training includes yoga and elements of Chinese Opera, but filtered through Shen Wei’s sensibility.

‘I’m the kind of person who will enjoy each moment life gives to me. Sometimes you’re in a real low place, but you can still see an interesting part in that situation’.With this philosophy, Shen Wei believes, ‘you don’t feel as surprised when difficulties come to you. I never see things as difficult. Every experience is learning.’

Part of the choreographer’s job, Shen Wei avows, is ‘to take dancers to a place where movement hasn’t existed yet.’ He works with each dancer to bring out individual qualities within the scope of what he wants. ‘The concept is 100% from me. I tell the dancers what direction to go. To do that, I first have to tell them all the ways I don’t want them to go.’

He touches again on that personal bedrock, honesty. ‘With my work, I’m not going to do something just to please. I’m just trying to put it out there, and maybe take people to different places to help them understand another part of
life.’ Does he understand his own life? ‘I’m like a fish. I know where I’m trying to swim.’Where’s that? ‘A better place’. Shen Wei laughs. ‘A place that makes my life make even more sense, and is more useful for the people around me.’


This article first appeared in the Spring 2004 edition of "Dance Umbrella News"

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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