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Flash Review, 7-30: Rites of Choreography
Visions of the Known from Shen Wei

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- The multi-talented Shen Wei certainly has an overall vision for his dance works. He not only choreographed "The Rite of Spring" and "Folding," performed last week at Laguardia High School Concert Hall as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, he designed the painted set elements and the costumes. Shen Wei seems to soak up various elements from all over the place and squeeze droplets throughout his own work. He studied and worked with the Hunan State Xian Opera from a young age, helped to found Guangdong Modern Dance Company, and received a scholarship with Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab, after which he moved to New York. All these influences emerged in this program seen on July 23, and more.

Wei's "The Rite of Spring" has many earmarks of contemporary dance coming out of Europe -- socked feet; costumes of variously combined leotards, tunics, and separates of the same palette; and a sort of bleak industrial atmosphere, not to mention the use of Stravinsky's music. The white pancaked members of Shen Wei Dance Arts performed atop a giant canvas painted with an irregular white grid. Fazil Say performed the score live on a digital piano; he accompanied a recording of himself to make a performance for four hands. Say's thrilling rendition emphasized the primal nature of the composition, and effectively leveraged the spare percussiveness of the piano against its lusher capabilities.

Shen pays little heed to any narrative, instead emphasizing the bold strokes of the music in movements that keyed literally off of the score's varying and strident rhythms, perhaps driven by some internalized biological metronome. The dancers repeated a traditional opera step in both works, a flat-footed shuffle with the arms held in a crooked semi-attention alongside the torso. They added spins, and on a big chord, all dropped to the ground before taking turns doing big individual moves. Shen makes interesting work of sitting, jumping in an eventual seated position, legs pre-folded into pinwheels. The thirteen dancers (including Shen) massed together and dispersed, moving between structured rigidity and fractured chaos. Everything seemed as if it should have been new and contemporary; at the same time, it all felt very familiar.

"Folding," an exercise in high mannerism to music by John Tavener (plus some Tibetan Buddhist chant), presented some visual stunners. The performers wore crimson or black wrapped skirts with trains, white body paint on their upper halves (the women wore white bandeau tops), and egg-shaped helmets of the same tone. The elegant painted backdrop by Shen, featuring a fish and some signatory chop marks, took inspiration from an 18th-century watercolor by Ba Dan San Ren. The dancers employed the same shuffling step as in 'Rite,' entering downstage of the proscenium and carving half circles, two at a time, like gears meshing -- a hypnotic repetition. They spun and their skirts, which laid bold trailing strokes of color, whipped around their legs. Two dancers merged, one entering astride another's shoulders, or two torsos hovering over one skirt.

Shen performed an angst-filled solo downstage, supported by a frieze of dancers. In the gloaming, they ascended a staircase almost motionlessly, their unfolding skirts making them seem like giants. This highly theatrical work spoke of continuity, procession, and inexorable evolution. In a page from certain Butoh companies, Shen Wei and Dancers drew out their curtain calls into indulgent, crowd-manipulating scenes. The audience went along willingly. Undoubtedly a grand vision guided this work, but again, it felt oddly familiar throughout. Whether this is due to the artist incorporating influences or my own overactive imagination, I'm not sure. David Ferri design the brilliant lighting schemes.

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