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Shen Wei Dance Arts - 'The Rite of Spring,' 'Folding'

Formalized Isolation

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 solo downstage.

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 these images.

Edited by Editor

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