Shen Wei Dance Arts
by Carmel Morgan
March 21, 2008 -- John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Concert Hall, Washington, DC
On March 21, 2008, Shen Wei Dance Arts (“SWDA”), a resident company of the Kennedy Center, danced and painted to live music by pianist Gloria Cheng and the FLUX Quartet. Yes, painted. The concept of “Connect Transfer,” choreographed in 2004 by artistic director Shen Wei, involves dancers smearing paint over a huge white canvas spread atop the stage floor. The work is an endlessly fascinating fusion of music, visual art, and dance.
Shen Wei is a rising star in the world of contemporary dance, and his company shows off his virtuoso vision. SWDA was launched at the American Dance Festival in 2000. In 2007, Shen Wei was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Led by his towering choreographic talent, SWDA displays remarkable artistry and uniformity of style.
“Connect Transfer” begins in silence as dancers create exquisite sculptures with their bodies. The costumes, designed by Shen Wei, consist of simple, snug-fitting dancewear in shades of black and blue-gray. Feet are covered, as are the length of the dancers’ arms, so that as they bend over and grab a leg, one begins to see an abstract alphabet emerge, dark figures against the vast white canvas underneath them. They move in and out of poses, twisting and curving, making contact with the floor. The scraping of their feet against the canvas can be heard. Finally, the musicians begin to play, making a sort of hum that reminds one of awakening, of breathing in and out.
There is a definite pulse throughout “Connect Transfer.” In one early section of the work, the dancers, in duets and trios, are in close contact. A head rests on a shoulder, a foot on someone’s buttocks, as they transfer weight and shift shapes. While some of the connections look improvised, the dancing also has a very structured feel to it. The beautiful sound of the dancers’ feet sliding across the canvas continues, evoking images of sweeping brush strokes.
The painting begins when a single dancer rolls out. There’s a shock when the first splash of black colors the canvas. Keeping hands and feet largely on the floor, the dancer’s limbs move in wide circles, leaving a visible trail behind. The music grows louder and more intense. A second dancer follows, a paintless painter, who traces the scrawl on the floor.
Eventually, a new color is added. A dancer’s hand, loose like the bristles of a paintbrush, swirls red onto the canvas. Dancers sweep over the bourgeoning work of art in low, smooth, mesmerizing movements. It’s as if they have no bones and are gliding on ice. They melt into the canvas and skim quickly across it, their shoulders and necks caressing the floor with amazing fluidity.
Shen Wei himself makes an appearance. In a spotlighted solo, he stretches his arms in a long diagonal. Is he the maestro, taking it all in? More pools of light appear, and the dancers fall into them, thrusting their weight forward. The music pounds. Here the dancers play with off-center movement. They throw their bodies back and forth and precariously balance on one leg, catching themselves at the last moment.
The piece initially seems slightly melancholy, but a lighter side soon surfaces. As piano keys in the upper register happily clink, the dancers’ feet mirror the notes, hopping and tripping along. In a humorous fashion, a group of dancers swivels on their backs like writhing worms, their arms by their sides as if in straightjackets. Their hips, shoulders, and knees propel them backwards. The paint is, accordingly, smudged, and their costumes are streaked.
In the end, Shen Wei returns in a joyful refrain. Again he is in the spotlight with his arms outstretched, acting like punctuation at the end of a paragraph. Then one by one the SWDA dancers take turns smoothing more colors (blue, green, orange, gold) onto the canvas and performing individual bows.
“Connect Transfer” is spectacularly satisfying. While the piece is long, it is never dull. It’s a beguiling exploration of the intimate relationship between music, dance, and the fine arts. The work is more about the process of making art, however, than the product. Brush strokes are clearly reflected in the dancers’ spiraling arms and legs, and the music is visible in the dancers’ supple, rhythmic bodies. What one carries away is that dancers are always painting and making music, it’s simply less noticeable without paint, canvas, and the magnified sound of feet. Likewise, visual artists and musicians are always, in some way, dancing.
“Connect Transfer” is also an ingenious marketing tool. The finished canvas is cut into pieces and subsequently sold to raise funds for preventative wellness for the dancers, covering treatments like acupuncture that regular health insurance may not provide.
Shen Wei and his company were commissioned by the Beijing Organizing Committee to develop material for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. Based upon the success of “Connect Transfer,” one anticipates an exhilarating show.