Shen Wei Dance Arts
by Carmel Morgan
May 23, 2013 -- Atrium, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC
If you don’t know the Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei, then please go see his work. He’s one of the must-sees in contemporary dance. If you’re familiar with him, then you may know he has a background in painting. In fact, he continues to paint (about 20% of the time, he said in a post-performance discussion, versus 80% of his time devoted to choreography). I think it’s fair to say that he paints with his dancers, too, sometimes quite literally.
Shen’s choreography, for me at least thus far, has never failed to deliver unbelievable beauty. Thus, I had been very much looking forward to seeing “Undivided Divided.” The Park Avenue Armory commissioned this original work, which premiered in November 2011, and the performance was adapted for an atrium space on the upper level of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The atrium is basically a wide exhibition hall connecting two much larger and longer halls, and it’s often used simply as a passage from one side of the Kennedy Center to the other. I’ve never seen a dance performance in that space, but, somewhat surprisingly, I hope to do so again.
I was a tiny bit apprehensive when informed that in order to see the performance, I would need to take off my shoes and stand for the duration – about 45 minutes. That’s kind of a long time for standing, and I had to be sure my toes were freshly polished, I figured. However, time flew by, and my toes were spared from exposure by blue hospital scrub-type booties that were issued to the audience before the performance. Although probably not intentional, the procedure for donning the foot covers heightened my anticipation even more. Waiting in a long, winding queue, sans shoes, I was reminded of security lines at the airport -- not in a bad way, exactly. I felt as if I was about to go on a journey somewhere, and that’s exactly what happened, and what happens with all good dance.
The journey began with lines of audience members silently streaming into the space, which was already occupied by dancers. Wearing only small flesh colored shorts, the men and topless women were on the ground atop body-sized (7 foot by 7 foot) white squares arranged like a grid throughout the room. “Oh, goody,” I immediately thought, when I spied neat round circles of paint in multiple colors at the corners of some of the squares. Paint would obviously be part of this show!
The audience wandered in and around the dancers, who moved slowly at first, without explicitly acknowledging our presence. Like marveling at sculptures in a museum, we stared appreciatively at the dancers’ lovely bodies. Occasionally, we stared at each other, catching a smile or the puzzled expression of a fellow observer. We maneuvered carefully to avoid bumping into one another, or coming into contact with one of the performers (I’d have limited the crowd to about half the size it was, as those with wheelchairs and walkers, especially, seemed to be challenged moving about). What initially seemed an uncomfortably close and voyeuristic event became more relaxed as the work progressed and music (original score by So Percussion), paint, and more energetic movement were added.
Dancers began sliding into the paint (very rewarding to see!), changing from pale (there were no dark-skinned dancers), to hues ranging from red to green to orange to pink to white. Some interacted with plexiglass props, piling see-through boxes on end and climbing them, or swooshing through wet paint inside a tall clear-walled cube like a magnetically pulled doll, sometimes hitting the walls like a slightly out-of-control hockey player. Others writhed on the floor in chunks of black hair or weaved their limbs through elastic cords.
My focus kept shifting from up-close to distant, and it was so enjoyable to experience dance this way, and to have the choreography encourage these different perspectives. It’s one thing to be seated in a huge auditorium always looking straight ahead, it’s quite another to be surrounded by dancers and to see sweat glisten on chests that are right in front of your eyes. As I paused to take in a long view of the room, I noticed that next to me stood Shen Wei himself, and we exchanged pleasant grins. We passed each other more than a few times as we both ambulated and admired.
At one point, sonograms and brain scans flashed across the white squares on the ground, highlighting the insides of the bodies to which our eyes were glued. At another point, suddenly every dancer was standing with one arm extended, aloft, unifying the entire room, and the lights grew bright and warm (lighting design courtesy of the peerless Jennifer Tipton). At yet another point, the particular dancer I’d been watching stuck her tongue way out, and when I looked around, I saw other tongues protruding. Finally, dancers turned and pivoted and made arcs with their bodies in climactic whooshes. I could hear paint brushes sweeping across canvas as they spun around, and the noise and movement were absolutely glorious. And then the end came. The dancers walked out, as quietly as we had walked into the room. I stayed to see the imprints of the performance in the emptied hall, the splatters and swirls of paint on the floor serving as a tangible trail of the extraordinary dancing we’d all just witnessed.
I hope that the Kennedy Center will be daring once more and bring more dance that’s outside the box and outside the regular theater setting. The performance of “Undivided Divided” made me feel as if I’d left the not infrequently uptight and conservative DC and gone to New York or London or Tokyo. I also hope that although this is the last year of a five-year performance residency for Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Kennedy Center, Shen Wei will invited back to our nation’s capital again and again.
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