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Shen Wei Dance Arts

'Re- (Part I)' and 'Map'

by Carmel Morgan

October 29, 2008 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC

On October 29, 2008, fresh from his successful gig as a choreographer for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Shen Wei and his troupe Shen Wei Dance Arts treated a Kennedy Center audience to two earlier works, “Re- (Part I)” (2006) and “Map” (2005).  Shen Wei’s recently acquired fans were unlikely to have been disappointed by these works, as they showcase his characteristic painterly movement style.

In “Re-,” Shen Wei explores memories of a trip he took to Tibet.  He uses traditional Tibetan chants sung by Ani Choying Dolma for the piece.  Jennifer Tipton, a MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient like Shen Wei, provides fabulous lighting design.  Shen Wei designed the set and costumes.  The set consists of a large mandala – a ritualistic geometric design that is symbolic of the universe and is used in Buddhism as a meditation aid – which covers the stage floor.  The dancers wear simple dark pants and reddish-pink tops.

“Re-” begins with the dancers slowly filling the shapes that make up the mandala design with pieces of colored confetti.  They are quiet, meditative.  A soloist enters in a white t-shirt and pants and stands toward the front of the stage outside of the mandala itself.  She oozes to the music and sets the tone.  A single arm extends, in a spiritual gesture, perhaps.  The other dancers exit, leaving behind their carefully placed paper petals.

Gradually, a circle of dancers gathers at the perimeter of the mandala.  Moving with their backs toward the center of the stage, they break through the delicate design, leaving a stream of confetti behind them.  This startling demolition elicits a gasp from the audience.  The boldly patterned figure on the floor is short-lived.  Shen Wei’s dance is fleeting too, so we enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

In “Re-,” as in most of Shen Wei’s works, the balcony affords the best view.

The dancers’ feet hypnotically shuffle, churning up bits of confetti into the air.  In painterly sweeps they make tiny trails like animals in the snow.  The dancers drop down into the mixing colors, doing supple rolls across the floor.  As they spin and stretch, tiny pieces of confetti cling to their costumes like fairy dust.  Shen Wei’s signature magic is afoot.

The dancers repeat simple phrases in a measured pace, dipping and balancing, always fluid.  Especially in moments of silence and stillness, we see incredible beauty.  The confetti gathers in small piles.  With a dramatic shift in Tipton’s masterful lighting, we suddenly see sand dunes, full of texture.  The lighting quickly turns brighter, however, and the dunes disappear.  The theme of permanence and impermanence comes though clearly.

“Map” followed “Re-.”  Like the music to which it is set – “The Desert Music” by Steve Reich – “Map” is divided into five sections or “maps,” which have different movement qualities.  Shen Wei again designed the set and costumes.  A giant blackboard with neon scrawls that are partially rubbed out serves as the backdrop.  The costumes are greenish gray tops and pants, accompanied by Crayola colored socks.  At the beginning of “Map,” groups of dancers lie flat on the floor with frog-like bent legs.  Their spineless bodies move in lines like a musical score across a page.  The balcony view remains best.

Reich’s music provides a certain urgency and lightness, which “Map” brilliantly reflects.  When the music jumps, dancers’ shoulders travel up to their ears and around, heads snap to the side.  At times, it’s as if the dancers are being tickled -- their butts and shoulders shake, or they writhe on the floor.  At other times, they seem drunk, tilting off balance.  “Map” also displays soft, fast footwork that’s rather jazzy.  In wonderful sections of unison, the dancers bounce and embrace silliness.  Their loose arms mimic the music’s rhythm as hips circle and bump.  Here, rather than gasps, laughter could be heard erupting.

Shen Wei’s movement in “Map” happens in extraordinary synchronicity with Reich’s unusual music.  Shen Wei’s dancers tumble and run, getting up off the floor at a dizzying speed.  In a lovely sequence, three women in a clump meld and merge.  The trio starts and stops, creating fused poses on the floor.  The dancers sometimes move in flocks, emitting energy that grows with the music’s volume.  These large groupings fit well with the choral parts of Reich’s score.

The dancers in “Map” appear other-worldly somehow.  They’re not quite human.  The illegible mathematical scribbles on the backdrop make one think of dreamers, of ideas, of a science lab.  The dance gives this same impression.  Are the dancers the embodiment of artistic genius?  Do they represent Shen Wei’s neurons firing?

At the close of “Map,” the dancers, close together, move in curves, their feet fluttering in small, quick steps.  The music quiets and a black scrim begins to close down on them from above.  The dancers gradually disappear from sight.  The work goes out gracefully.  Shen Wei’s active neurons finally rest.

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