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Flash Review 2, 7-29: Cartography 101
Shen Wei's 'Map' to Nowhere

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2005 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK -- Chinese-born (and trained) and New York-based choreographer Shen Wei has enjoyed a fairly rapid rise to prominence in the modern dance world. His five-year old Shen Wei Dance Arts company has maintained a very active international touring schedule of some considerable venues. His large company is full of beautiful dancers and his background as an accomplished visual artist makes for an array of dazzling images. But he recently concluded his third consecutive appearance at the Lincoln Center Festival with the kind of unfettered indulgence a cynical dance insider might expect from a too-much-too-soon-kid.

"Near the Terrace, Part I," commissioned by the American Dance Festival in 2000, opened the program at the New York State Theater this past Sunday with haunting majesty. Shen takes inspiration from the paintings of Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux and orchestrates a stark and seductive moving tableaux full of white painted, half-naked women and men. The scale of the work is truly operatic, with a large, steep staircase set at the back of the stage for dancers to slowly ascend and cross. Tiny white painted palm trees pepper the landscape, among which the dancers slowly drop to the floor, creating the illusion of gods in repose.

A woman enters at one point gliding through the statuesque dancers with a long papery white skirt flowing behind her. An unpainted naked woman walks across the steps with her back arched and a long scarlet red cloth dragging behind her. One unpainted black woman slowly turns among them, creating a striking contrast. A few women crouch and quickly spring straight into the arms of the men, holding themselves stiff and parallel to the floor. The quick bursts work like a chime at the conclusion of meditation, providing a momentary zing to the slow daze seeping into my head. This is a publicity photographer's dream, a continuing series of striking images deepened by David Ferri's ethereal lighting. I can't help pondering the budget, which perhaps with Shen's triple duties as choreographer, set designer and costume designer isn't as outrageous as the lavish work implies.

"Map," a premiere commissioned by the festival, followed intermission and apparently required epic program notes. Several pages specify the particular aspects of the movement vocabulary for each section. The dancing is phenomenal and the dancers exceedingly well rehearsed but the notes, read afterwards, are entirely redundant. The dance never develops beyond the obvious involved explorations of impulse and response despite running on (and on) for close to an hour.

The dancers explore rotation, bouncing, isolations and internal circles with awesome mastery and some seriously righteous performances. Juicy, powerful, fluid movement phrases abound. Arms reach out, shift, drop; bodies twist, spring and recoil and I'm practically biting myself to keep from twitching in my seat in visceral empathy but the cumulative effect of the work is one of tedium. It is, in the end, interminable. And predictable. The dance is so heavily reliant on its relationship to Steve Reich's "The Desert Music" that the dancers end up reminding me of equalizer bars so exactly do they match the score. It's as if your really clever, really driven and overly confident Comp. classmate didn't know when to call his movement study done.

Except it's at Lincoln Center for a hearty chunk o' change.

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