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Shen Wei Dance Arts

'Rite of Spring' and 'Folding'

Wei to go

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

October 12, 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Composed in1913 for Vaslav Nijinski’s riot-inducing ballet, Igor Stravinski’s "Rite of Spring" has been used by countless choreographers since that time in dance productions large and small. Its dissonant chords and haunting harmonies have proved to have lasting appeal to dance makers. Whether Stravinski himself would approve of many or any of these later interpretations of his music, we’ll never know, and maybe it doesn’t matter. But in an era when almost every classical and classic melody you’d care to name has been used as the soundtrack for a television advertisement, artists need a good reason to replay the same tunes.

Chinese contemporary dance choreographer Shen Wei was inspired by “the rich and evocative texture” of Stravinski’s masterpiece to create his own "Rite of Spring": an abstract movement study set to the four-handed piano version of the score. At times it becomes a Morris-esque musical translation: one dancer shuffling her feet to the chugging chords, another leaping in time with the banging keys. In other sections, it reads as a busy compendium of all of his dancers’ styles—each contributing a personal twist on the common themes of suspension, initiation, torsion and release. In black socks they scoot and slide across the fabric-covered stage, their feet creating a dampened screeching. When the stage is full of moving bodies, the effect is too demanding on the eye, refusing to knit together the way the music does. It’s on an individual level that the dance is most stunning; despite their differences, each dancer is absolutely precise. Their severe directionality and whipping limbs, as well as their rag-doll looseness, are exquisitely well controlled.

If "Rite of Spring" fails to resolve into a finished work, "Folding" is a more fully realised canvas where Wei’s training in the visual arts shines through. Against a dazzling wash of radiant blue light, the pale, androgynous torsos and conical heads of the dancers’ costumes are streaks of white; their skirts, vivid red splashes. Set to the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks and the spacious, evocative music of John Tavener, "Folding" is peppered with moments of extraordinary beauty, especially at its most spare, simple moments. In this wide open, shimmering landscape, two unearthly figures walking in perfect time with one another is enough to stun. As the piece progresses, though, such meditative simplicity gives way to long-winded canons and awkward, distracting side notes (Why the figure in full-body Lycra cat suit, tumbling in slow motion across the floor? Why the naked legs downstage?) that detract from the strength of the simplest images.

In a programme where these two works are shown together, Wei’s stylistic habits seem somewhat formulaic: both pieces begin with a blank stage, and fill slowly as figures enter one or two at a time. Both pieces incorporate the same surreal walk—the upper body hovering above the shortened steps of fast-moving feet. Both pieces are full of the choreographic device of flocking, where dancers come together in groups to follow the path charted by a leader, bending and swaying like a flock of flying birds. In both pieces, the dancers’ bodies are grease-painted white, their faces are blank and expressionless, and their arms held at a rigid angle, elbows pointing backwards like action-figure dolls. Whether all these similarities between dances constitute a pleasing continuity of style or a reliance on familiar patterns is probably a matter of taste—I tend to prefer less predictability. On the length of the ovation alone, I’d guess the audience felt differently. One thing is for sure: Wei knows how to create at beautiful composition. I’d like to see the fruits of his collaboration with a new composer who can paint with music as well as Wei can paint with stage design and movement.

Edited by Jeff

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