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Shen Wei Dance Arts in "Re- (Part I)." Alex Pines photo courtesy Spoleto USA.

Copyright 2011 Chris Dohse

CHARLESTON, South Carolina -- There's a song by Simon & Garfunkel called "The Only Living Boy in New York." A cover version of the song by Everything but the Girl came into my iPod shuffle while I was waiting in the Atlanta airport for my connecting flight from NYC to Charleston on May 28, and these lyrics seemed perfect in my feverish, sleep-deprived state:

"Half of the time we're gone but we don't know where; we don't know when. Here I am....." Seemed perfect because there I certainly without a doubt was.

I'd like to say more about Khmeropedies and Corella Ballet and something about Shen Wei, these being the three big dance companies I saw at the Spoleto Festival. Specifically about the experiment I believe choreographers Emmanuele Phuon and Christopher Wheeldon are working out on their respective companies, Khmeropedies and Corella Ballet, with varying degrees of finesse, versus Shen Wei's seemingly effortless creation of an individual movement vocabulary.

Anyone who has read me in the past knows that I feel averse to removing traditional (folkloric, "ethnic," indigenous) forms of dance from their traditional performance spaces and occasions and making them into a proscenium-stage concert experience. I feel it's like putting an animal in a cage at the zoo. Not that these forms shouldn't be given the respect and equal legitimacy they've long been denied. But parading them onto the world's stages like a kind of lecture/demonstration does not serve their usually lived-through, lived-among, intimate, sometimes sacred natures and cultural specificity.

You'd also know, if you've read me in the past, that I'm sort of a balletophobe. There are many reasons for my aversion to this rarified vocabulary based on a dead French king's eccentricities that I don't need to list here. But it might be worth noting that I view ballet itself as an "ethnic" form. Specifically, French. Not a universal dance language.

So I come to this conversation acknowledging that I'm not an expert in either form manipulated by Phuon or Wheeldon. But I have a big mouth.

I see both these choreographers looking for ways to revitalize their respective forms, to bring their movement language into the 21st Century. In Wheeldon's case, as it is in the seating schematics of opera houses across the United States, it's partially a strategy to lure younger audiences to the box office.

As I sit in the dusky humidity of various Charleston theaters listening to the audiences around me ask each other what they've seen, what they've enjoyed, I hear most prominently, Corella Ballet. "So beautiful," "I've never seen anything like it," "I'll never forget it." Now bear in mind that the bulk of these audiences come from the osteoporosis and oxygen tank crowd. I don't mean that to be hateful, just descriptive. So Corella's experiment, specifically Wheeldon's work is reaching them deeply. Really working for them. And that's a good thing. A sweet deal.

But it -- specifically "DGV: Danse a Grand Vitesse" -- does not work for me. First of all the set pieces look like leftovers from "Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari." Michael Nyman's cinematic score reinforces the filmic mise en scene. Given that the piece was composed to commemorate the opening of a high-speed train (or TGV) between Paris and Lille, it's perfect for the snark in my soul that Nyman's propulsive score now accompanies a visual train wreck. Then we meet a tribe of spastic turtle people, who gobble up modern and postmodern pastiche with their balletic partnering tropes, and what the hell, let's throw in some jazzy, Broadway quirks and idiosyncrasies and some June Taylor Dancers kaleidoscopic patterns. Too much too many. The male corps de ballet seems particularly ungainly, like gawky teenagers whose faces haven't yet grown into their noses. I don't know if this is "revitalizing" ballet or dumbing it down, and I don't know if, as he ages, Wheeldon won't absorb all these glue-ons and make them into something new and wonderful and entirely his own. But it ain't happening yet. Well, the piece is five years old; things could have shifted already. Simply cutting and pasting four counts of jazz torso onto four counts of ballet pelvis does not an integrated vocabulary make.

Phuon, in the dances she has made (or directed; there is a strong sense in the work that the dancers contribute their natural qualities to the choreographic process) for her younger Cambodian dancers, has perhaps been less ambitious, allowing the evolution from historic to contemporary to be more organic and develop on each dancer's body at his or her own pace. Some of the material looks a little too well-made for my taste, too White Oak-y -- Phuon danced for Baryshnikov's company -- while other sections achieve a synthesis of contemporary musical/dance energies and the traditional bound flow and elegance of Cambodian court dance in surprising and saturated, satisfying ways.

Shen Wei Dance Arts in "Re- (Part III)." Alex Pines photo courtesy Spoleto USA.

But Shen Wei nails it, a syncretism of forms and framing devices, for an end product he probably never foresaw. By just looking around carefully and slowly, allowing everything to be just as it is, he seems to have stumbled on a movement vocabulary that gathers postmodern dance forms, the traditional Chinese forms he grew up studying -- Wei trained in Peking Opera -- and whatever else he has absorbed: he's a true movement ethnographer.

The first section of the 'Re-' triptych, "Re- (Part I)," about Tibet, is my least favorite, perhaps because that is the culture, of the three Shen investigates, I know the most about. The dancers have created a mandala on the stage floor before they begin dancing from what must be Post-It sized slips of colored paper that swirl up and around their shuffling feet to suggest snow, while clouds are projected on the scrim behind them. Then comes Cambodia, the subject of "Re- (Part II)," primarily created around impressions from Ankgor Wat. The final Butoh-paced tableaux stuns with its spare, inert bodies that could be the mass graves of the Killing Fields. As Antony & the Johnsons have sung, "From the corpses, flowers grow."

I can't help but being terrifically amused by the fact that after this, two couples sitting near me (both middle-aged and apparently heterosexual) leave the theater and don't return. That old in-bred disgust at partially nude elements; oh no titties! Oh, how the morally pejorative, reductive, ridiculous South never disappoints!

Then a third section, "Re- (Part III)," inspired by China's Silk Road. Is it my imagination or do the dancers, dressed identically, walking all in the same direction, leaning on each other but falling down, comment on the strict regime of modern China? And what about the juxtaposition of this militaristic regularity against that first section, the open sky and freedom of Tibet? I begin to see elements in Shen's movement that might echo Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, or the pugilism of La La La Human Steps. But it's still his own deeply personal investigation. This guy might be the hope we've been awaiting who will create a new dance boom, popular from that Olympics gig, yet keeping true to his esoteric roots.

For more Chris Dohse, be sure to check his blog, Know your own bone.

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