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Ancient forms, modern ideas: Shen Wei Dance Arts.

Rich and Strange

By Mae G. Banner

Shen 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 and choreographer.

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.

Re—Part 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 magic home.

Summer Camp
Jacob’s 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 spoofers.

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 let on.

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.

—Mae G. Banner

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