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Flash Review 3, 7-5: Shadows of a Dream
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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