From Holly Messitt:
Shen Wei Dance Arts
“The Rite of Spring” and “Folding”
July 23, 2003, LaGuardia Concert Hall
by Holly Messitt
Part of the power in Shen Wei’s work lies in his ability to execute the unity of his vision. He choreographs. He designs his company’s costumes. His paintings form the settings for his dances. We watch, in other words, the cohesiveness of an expansive mind, a new hybrid of Eastern and Western that brings freshness of vision even to music that may now seem overdone.
The first piece on the program during Shen Wei Dance Arts’ three performances last week in the Lincoln Center Festival was “The Rite of Spring.” Rather than a more traditional orchestral score for Stravinsky’s music, Mr. Shen opted for a version with four hands on the piano played by Fazil Say. Mr. Say played one half of the score live accompanied by another section he pre-recorded himself for the “other” two hands. To this most Western music, the dance choreography was a cross between contemporary Modern dance and Chinese opera, a tradition Mr. Shen inherited from his father and uncles who performed in Hunan Xian opera. It was hard as a Western viewer to recognize these Chinese elements immediately, however, since much of the movement felt at once familiar. The costuming also looked familiar to a Western viewer. The dancers’ gray and black costumes – loose trousers and tight tees for the men, skirts or tight pants for the women, all with splatters of paint – made them resemble hip downtown artists.
However, looking for long enough I realized that all thirteen members of the company were on stage at once for much of the time and that except for once, when Mr. Shen stepped out in front of the rest of the company, no one danced alone. There were no pairings either and no principle dancers. A group of four or six dancers might work the same movement for a time, but the groups fell apart as one dancer inevitably started experimenting with another form of movement. Yet even then, the dancers were always moving in relation to one another, always reacting spatially to another dancers’ movement. Each movement felt strategic, as if the dancers were trying to strike a balance between all the bodies in the space. For this piece, the company danced atop a painting by Mr. Shen, who has studied calligraphy. The long white brush strokes within the gray of the paining looked like the traces of the dancers’ footwork.
If in many ways “The Rite of Spring” felt familiar, “Folding,” the second piece of the evening, felt otherworldly – neither Western nor Eastern. The dancers appeared on stage in the beginning of the piece two at a time. Using a quick heel/toe walk that relied on the whole foot to propel the movement, the dancers all glided across the floor as one would imagine a person might walk on water if that were possible. As each pair moved from the front of the stage to the back, turned and exited they were perfectly coordinated as if they were traveling along a set track, so straight were their lines and so precise were their turns. Each dancer wore a long straight skirt of red cloth folded in the back to form a panel that drifted out into a flowing train and a headpiece that that can only be described as beehive-shaped which made the dancers look alien, or perhaps aquatic against the backdrop of aqua blue, one large and two smaller fish painted on top of the blue. It was very difficult to see any individuality in any of these dancers.
In the last section of the piece Mr. Shen walked a group of ten dancers on stage. Here, with Mr. Shen standing in front of and away from the group, bodies folded. In various ways over many minutes, the group bent at the waist, elbow, or knee. After such experimenting the group, minus Mr. Shen, moved to a now pitch black backdrop. There must have been stairs at the back, but the audience could not see them. Facing away from the audience, the dancers moved into a background that appeared to have no depth and as they moved, they looked as if they weightlessly rose to form a human Mandela. It was a stunning image to conclude an evening of some of the most interesting work happening in contemporary dance.