forms, modern ideas: Shen Wei Dance Arts.
Mae G. Banner
Wei Dance Arts Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 13
Sometimes, a dance can rocket you into the fourth dimension.
Shen Wei’s Map (2005), lit cosmically by Jennifer Tipton,
jolts you from the first moment, shattering the stage space,
displacing the usual center and pulling your eye toward a
forward-thrusting row of dancers who rolled forward and back
at the farthest edge of stage left.
An androgynous group dressed in simple blue tops and jeans
and wearing socks, they moved gently forward, a hand-span
from the exposed walls and equipment of the Ted Shawn Theatre
at Jacob’s Pillow. Gradually, the light revealed the backdrop,
a strange map chalked in yellow and blue, filled with arrows,
circles and dense connecting lines—vectors of the choreography—drawn
by Shen, who is a painter and designer as well as a dancer
Everything was strange, but everything cohered. The 12 dancers
rolled forward and back on the ground like the incoming ocean
tide, their very breathing synchronized with Steve Reich’s
Desert Music and Tipton’s uncanny lighting. When they
stood, they whorled like eddies or spun like whirlpools, their
feet never leaving the ground.
They sustained a constant action that incorporated minute
changes, going nowhere, though always promising, always creating
a sense of wonder. Their dancing was utterly relaxed, as if
they were boneless, flowing continuously with the music. It
was like spending a day at the ocean watching the waves forever
crashing, retreating, returning.
Shen, born in Hunan, China, and trained as a youth in traditional
Chinese opera, migrated to New York City in 1995 and formed
Shen Wei Dance Arts in 2000. Though he draws on ancient forms
and philosophies, his work is like none other. Sets, costumes,
make-up and choreography all are his designs. He seems intent
on getting to the core of movement and thereby raising the
audience to a higher level of consciousness.
I thought to compare Shen’s work to that of Merce Cunningham,
who also destroys our expectations of a central focus or perspective,
but Shen’s dancers move in near-unison, not randomly. Then,
I thought of Trisha Brown’s long phrases—accumulations, she
calls them—that create lengthening chains of movement. But,
Brown’s accumulations can be mechanical, while Shen’s are
slightly out of order, always surprising. He simply displaces
your sense of time and space.
As in nature, the stage is constantly alive with action. The
very space is activated. It vibrates. Dancers would come together
to wind and turn and bend, then disperse, rolling away like
balls of mercury, The whole effect is calming and enlivening.
I (2006) is a dance for four acolytes, set to a Tibetan
chant sung by Ani Choying Drolma and subtly lit by Tipton.
We discover the dancers, Lindsay Clark, Dai Jian, Kathleen
Jewett, and Sara Procopio, each kneeling at the corners of
a large blue-and-white mandala they are just completing.
Each is alone and intensely focused as they add the last bits
to the design. Suddenly, Jian, the only man, rises and, windswept,
is propelled backward toward stage right. This sets off a
whisper of movement and the start of decomposing the mandala.
The dancers step through the blue-and-white shards, their
bodies gently bent forward. Each move spreads this snow-like
field of white out to the white-rimmed edges of the central
black rectangle on which the mandala was made. The dancers
begin a slow rolling in the whiteness, so bits of the confetti-like
paper stick to their wine-colored Tibetan jackets.
Slowly, smoothly, they stand, balance, collapse and rise with
one arm up, a little like a Tai Chi exercise in the constant
flow of movement. They move with winged arms and flexible
backs. It’s a cooling dance, and, maybe because it reminds
you of making snow angels on a winter’s day, you want to do
it with them.
The meditative quality of Re is sustained by the chant,
by the whispering sound of the paper snow as the dancers’
feet hush through it, and by Tipton’s minutely changing light,
now icy, now brighter. The light breathes with the dancers,
and so do we.
Just as I was in deepest calm, something impossible happened.
The four dancers stretched out with their hands before them
on the ground and one leg up behind. Then, suddenly weightless,
they raised both hands off the ground and seemed to hover
in the air. They levitated—unbelievable.
In this spellbinding dance, the dancers were both more and
less than human. They were flowing bodies who could leave
gravity behind or lovingly surrender to it. I remembered my
modern-dance teacher, who would guide us in plies, saying,
“Lift as you lower.”
After the curtains closed, members of the audience rushed
to the stage and filled their pockets with handfuls of the
blue-and-white paper bits. We wanted to bring some of the
Jacobs Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 13
Provincetown came to Jacob’s Pillow Sunday in the slinky form
of Richard Move’s MoveOpolis!, a lovingly camp collection
of Move’s dances performed by five gorgeous, technically perfect
Camp works, as Susan Sontag definitively told us, by being
totally serious. Yes, the pinup poses and extravagant courtesies
are outrageous, but the dancers, totally committed, never
Move, a masterful and respectful Martha Graham impersonator,
had a marvelous time with this show. He sent up Mark Morris
in Verdi for Three (2004), originally made for the
Paradigm trio. Here, red-haired Kristen Irby, Kevin Scarpin,
and Blakeley White McGuire did nutty and precise hand gestures
to Verdi arias, exquisitely serious, even when they were wiping
their noses in synch.
In “Lust” (2001), a part of the Seven Deadly Sins dance
first performed by New York City Ballet’s Helene Alexopoulos,
the luscious Catherine Cabeen preens like a 1940s Varga girl
drawing out of Esquire, stretching her appealing legs
in translucent black tights that make her more naked than
mere nudity would do. Twisting into sensuous contortions,
running her hands up her legs to pause at her crotch, letting
her long blonde hair veil her face with its half-closed eyes,
she was the essence of sexy self-regard.
Miguel Anaya danced Dilemma (2003), a part-East Indian,
part-Latin-inflected solo in which he looked like a Mapplethorpe
photo in muscular motion, running, leaping, changing direction
in mid-turn, pulling one leg up by an invisible string. He
even replicated Nijinsky’s famous profile pose from Afternoon
of a Faun. He danced beautifully, in utter bad taste.
Finally, we saw the world premiere of Move’s Toward the
Delights of the Exquisite Corpse, a dance for four pink-lit,
Vegas-like performers in metallic pink space-suits. They gyrated
and posed before a movie screen that showed Dada-ist designs
and fraught scenes from old black-and-white films. It wasn’t
quite porn, but it came close.
Physically perfect creatures with no soul, the self-absorbed
dancers finally became tedious to watch. You would really
like this dance, if you like that sort of thing.