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Shen Wei Dance Arts - 'The Rite of Spring,'
by Mary Ellen Hunt
September 26, 2004
-- Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, CA
An evening with Chinese-born
artist Shen Wei, whose eponymously named company Cal Performances presented
at Zellerbach Hall last week, left me with mixed emotions. On the one
hand, his “Folding” presented an eyeful of unusual and sometimes
moving imagery. On the other hand though, there was an undercurrent of
unrelenting, formalized isolation that nagged at me, even as I appreciated
the care and imagination that governed each piece.
Shen’s pieces, though meticulously planned and realized, are not
quite at the level of those of, say, Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan’s
Lin Hwai-Min. Nevertheless, his works have a striking visual impact and
whatever they may lack in structural core they make up for in detail.
“The Rite of Spring” demonstrates less underlying imaginative
invention than “Folding.” Shen’s style here is to deploy
groups of disengaged dancers, who hardly ever look at each other, much
less touch. There are no human connections to be made in this “Rite.”
Whereas most choreographers take a gut-level approach to the Igor Stravinsky
score as the ultimate invocation of human physicality, Shen’s take
is almost autonomic, a response to the notes and accents that never really
gets at the music’s viscerality.
As the “Rite” begins, the dancers assemble on either side
of the open stage space, facing off across a gray marley on which Shen
has painted his own designs. Ten dancers arrive, one by one, and as the
eleventh appears, she precipitates a kind of imbalance, causing the others
to glide at a ceremonial pace to the middle of the stage like pieces in
a giant chess board.
Shen’s grey-toned costumes and pale makeup imply a sort of nowhere/everywhere,
an effect compounded by the unseeing expression on the dancers’
faces, as if they were mannequins or cogs in a giant machine. They scuttle
back and forth like drones impelled by mounting urgency, to a recorded
four-hand piano version of the Stravinsky score. When they come together
it seems more because they are coincidentally doing the same step at the
same point in the music, not because they want to meet -- phrases of movement
are written side-by-side, but not blended. Only at one point, when the
dancers stare out directly at the audience, do we sense the human life
behind their eyes.
Pivots, spirals, “Crazy Legs” backspins, plops to the floor
all have a decidedly clean execution, and the movement reads authoritatively
on everyone, from the small compact Hou Ying to the lanky Kennis Hawkins,
whose compelling solo work takes on a softness of personality against
her hard-edged technique. A solo for Shen continues the spiral motif,
with a picture-perfect, wheeling pitch turn and outflung arms that wrap
about him like a flamenco dancer. Ultimately though, this “Rite
of Spring” comes across more like a movement study or a mood piece
rather than a full-fledged statement, leaving us with too little to think
about except for the music.
Clearly, though, in both works, Shen is striving for an all-encompassing
theatrical vision. For “Folding” we moved upstairs to
get more of the large-scale effect. Now, after seeing the piece,
I would encourage anyone who can to sit higher up to view the work, as
I’m convinced it enhances the experience.
Isolation and ritualistic detachment of a different sort is signaled as
a recording of the low thrum of Tibetan monks chanting fills dark stage
space, upon which light slowly dawns to reveal a backdrop of a few painted
fish swimming alone in a pale ocean.
Conceived by Shen after a
17th century Chinese painting by legendary calligrapher, Bada Shanren,
the setting at once formalizes and stylizes “Folding.” Bada
Shanren’s own scrolls, which were highly influential upon Japanese
Zen painting, reflect an understated, yet tumultuous inner life shaped
by the fall of the Ming dynasty. His signature, which appears at the corner
of the backdrop, itself suggests internal contradictions: the characters
that make up his name can be written in such a way that they look like
both the words “laugh” and “cry.”
Precariously balanced contradictions seem to be the theme of “Folding,”
in which pairs of dancers in long blood-red, fishtail-trained skirts and
ivory-painted bodies cut silkily across the stage like swaying carp.
As quietly as the Tibetan chants shift to the toll of John Tavener’s
bells, the scene morphs from a koi pond to Deep Sea exhibit at the Monterey
Bay Aquarium as Shen unleashes a slow parade of fascinating creatures,
one after the other. An unnaturally tall, queenly critter in a black skirt
appears off to one side -- obviously a dancer on another’s shoulders
– and when she takes a backbend, cantilevering against her host,
the arch is spectacular. A sort of Siamese-twin pair oozes past -- two
torsos gliding atop the same skirt bottom. And Shen adds hieratic figures,
one creature guiding another soul like Orpheus leading Eurydice from Hades.
Eventually the group swirls and folds into a tight knot at the center
of the stage, as if drawn to the pool of light, while Shen performs a
Who are they and what are they about? Most of it is open to your own interpretation.
Throughout “Folding,” a small pendulum swings downstage left.
Marker of time? Reminder of mortality? Bait line? When asked, the choreographer's
response is, “It is whatever you think it is.”
As beautiful and effective as it is, “Folding” is still not
quite a masterful work. It is a trace too long, and paced too slowly at
times. Nevertheless, by the time the dancers ascend to their final tableau
-- a disc of red skirts floating in the blackness like the flames that
ring Shiva the Destroyer -- it’s clear that there will be no forgetting
Edited by Editor
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