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Flash Review 3, 7-5: Shadows of
Caught Between Dreams & Reality with Shen Wei
By Byron Woods
Copyright 2001 Byron Woods
DURHAM, NC -- It wasn't the first
time I'd left a dream not entirely enchanted with either the world I'd left or
the world to which I was returning.
Young Chinese choreographer Shen
Wei astounded American Dance Festival audiences last summer with "Near the Terrace,"
a powerfully atmospheric 35-minute waking dream that proved the highlight of that
year's International Choreographers Commissioning Program, and indeed one of the
more memorable performances of the entire festival. Its delicate but considerable
strength and its impressive fusion of Butoh, Chinese opera and modern dance conventions
with the surrealist influences of Belgian painter Paul Delvaux convinced ADF officials
to offer Shen a commission and his own evening in this year's festival.
But Shen's response, "Near the Terrace,
Part II," seen this week at Duke University‚s Reynolds Auditorium, proved a not
entirely successful attempt to extend the exquisite dream of late last summer.
It's not the first time in recent years where more ultimately yielded less for
artists in the wake of an ICCP appearance. David Grenke's overinflated "Triptych
Humpty-Dumpty" at ADF in 1998 largely negated the profoundly disturbing accomplishments
of a comparatively brief, similarly-titled work the summer before. Similar fates
awaited choreographers Brenda Angiel and Barak Marshall in their return trips
to the Festival one year after preliminary ICCP dates.
It was gratifying to see the original
movement again before the world premiere Sunday night. As Arvo Part's pensive
work for solo piano suggested the early ambient experiments of Brian Eno but with
added gravitas, an ensemble of twelve returned to a surreal and timeless world
whose few, riveting details held the eerie specificity of a lucid dream. As is
the case with most dreams, description alone won't convey the intensity of the
moments we experienced.
Alone and in pairs, a phalanx of
partially-clothed, rice-powdered women in blue skirts made of torn, blanket-like
cloth slowly charted the stage. Much of the early work followed the slow falling
of individual women, gradually borne to the ground with exquisite tenderness by
other characters. Individual moments seemed to quote surrealist conventions. While
a man walked in an arc from stage right, a woman crept on the floor beside him,
her feet making constant contact with his, as his shadow.
At its best, the new second part
extended the altered, subconscious logic of this world, making the absurd and
the awkward seem both natural and effortless. In one such section, shadows changed
places with their walkers. Elsewhere women and men comfortably walked on all fours,
but with their hands pointing backwards, not forwards.
But other passages, including a lengthy,
jarring mid-work solo by the choreographer himself, made this dream outlast its
enchantment. Out of place with what preceeded and followed it, Shen's solo 45
minutes into the piece could not match the richness of the ensemble work that
had come before. No context, no relationship explained its presence.
After that unwelcome waking, we never
entirely returned to the dream-like state of the beginning, despite the entreaties
of the returning ensemble. The women and men moved just as beguilingly. Pairs
enacted complex Rorschach designs, while individual women suggested the armless,
headless torsos of ancient sculpture by holding their arms behind them and tilting
their chins ceilingward.
But by then it was just a dream:
one remembered, held at distance. In short, not the same as being there -- which
we had been, before.
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