Shen Wei Dance Arts melds Asian performance with modern dance and music of the West
Stunned-sounding reviewers use terms like "dreamlike" and "haunting" to describe the work of the new Shen Wei Dance Arts company. With its elegant, minimalist movement -- influenced by Butoh and by the stately pace of Chinese opera -- Shen Wei's work is clearly grounded in Asia. And yet it also reflects Shen's very 21st-century syncretic sensibility, which does not hesitate to fuse modern dance, Tibetan chants, and 16th-century English religious music in a single piece.
Shen Wei is something of a fusion himself: not only a brilliant dancer and choreographer but also a filmmaker and painter who has exhibited in Hong Kong and New York. He himself designs the group's spare, gorgeous, and sometimes quasi-surreal sets and costumes.
Shen spent his early childhood with his family in Hunan, China, living in the same building as the theatre where his father wrote, directed, and acted for a Xian opera company. At the age of 9, he was sent to study opera in the prestigious and demanding Hunan Arts School, an early exile from that which he has called a deep influence on his work.
After a stint with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company ("I see Chinese opera as an avant-garde form," Shen said recently), he became a founding member of China's first modern-dance group, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. But after harassment from the Chinese bureaucracy, Shen relocated to New York City in 1995, forming the 12-member Shen Wei Dance Arts company in 2001.
The two works Shen Wei will present on Thursday, April 10, reflect the diverse influences on Shen himself. The first, Rite of Spring (1), was named one of the year's Top 10 dance moments by New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff. Set to Fazil Say's recording of the original four-hand piano version of Stravinsky's masterpiece, it was developed in part through improvisation. The final piece retains both a highly formal structure and elements of what Shen calls "movement intuition" and chance.
Folding will be performed to Tibetan Buddhist chants and John Taverner's 16th-century Last Sleep of the Virgin. Shen originally choreographed this 40-minute piece in 2000 for his friends at the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. At the rear of the stage hangs a Chinese painting: a gray ocean with three fish. In this setting, androgynous figures in red half-ball gowns, their heads strangely extended by pale bulbous wigs, move and bond and separate across the stage.
When the passionate scarlet of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is combined in a single evening with the ethereal, crystalline tones of the Taverner piece, it suggests a choreographer with an extraordinarily encompassing vision. "Unless there are other colors around, you don't know what color you are," Shen Wei told The New York Times. Austin will be among the first cities in the country to see this acclaimed new group whose palette spans countries and centuries. It's a chance that shouldn't be missed.
The Shen Wei Dance Arts company performs Thursday, April 10, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall. Call 471-1444 for information.