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Judith Fein
Performance Reviews
Chinese
Modern/Contemporary
The Lensic Performing Arts Center
United States
New Mexico
Santa Fe, NM
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Expectations and Disappointments: Review of Shen Wei Dance Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico

by Judith Fein
March 31, 2009
The Lensic Performing Arts Center
211 West San Francisco Street
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 988-1234
www.shenweidancearts.org
It sounded like one of the peak dance moments of the year in this high-altitude, art-infused city: a performance by Shen Wei Dance Arts, with choreography, set design, makeup and costumes by MacArthur genius fellowship recipient Shen Wei.

According to the advance press, Shen Wei was raised in China and bathed in the aesthetic and discipline of Chinese Opera. Now based in New York and with a company resume that includes performances at the Lincoln Center Festival, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Opening Ceremonies of the Bejing Olympics, his work was said to be an utterly original blending of East and West.

Rite of Spring (choreographed in 2003) was the result of Shen Wei's love affair with the rich, evocative texture of Stravinsky's music. The abstract, painterly dance theatre piece begins on a half-lit stage, as each dancer deliberately takes his or her place, methodically, slowly, serenely, soberly, silently. There is some reshuffling of places, and then, just before the audience begins to squirm, the music starts and the dance takes off.

The concept of the dance is marvelous. Each dancer is like a Chinese brushstroke on canvas — deliberate, balanced, harmonious, impeccable, strong. They are shapes in space that twist, spiral, extend, rotate, advance, retreat. When they move in unison, they are like a flock of birds. When their movements are fluid and sinuous, they are redolent of a dancing fountain. When their gestures are more formal and stiff, they are like movable parts in a machine.

The Eastern influences were subtle—footwork from Chinese opera, a black and gray costume palette that looked like Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong at dawn or dusk, a Zen-like comfort with emptiness that permitted the dancers to stand absolutely still during some of the most passionate passages of music. But other than that, the dance felt decidedly Western and, alas, somewhat like improvisational or experimental theatre from the l970's. Committed, exuberant, but with an air of déjà vu.

The dancers were magnificently disciplined and trained—which is a tribute to their hard work and the leadership of their choreographer. At times they were so fluid they seemed jointless; as though the only thing that held them together and upright was their costumes. The disappointing part of the performance was the dance itself—which began to look like floor exercises, break dancing, tai chi, Pilates and yoga, all extremely well executed.

The second piece, Re-(Part I) suggests that it has a sequel. It was choreographed in 2006 and inspired by Shen Wei's then-recent journeys in Tibet.

The stage floor at the Lensic Theatre was covered by mandalas made of colored confetti. From the outset—with Tibetan horns and cymbals and then the traditional chants of Tibet and the vocals of Ani Choying Dolma—the mood is decidedly meditational. The ballet is riddled with long silences, repetitive movements, a slow place and the inward, focused look of the dancers. As they move through the mandala, they destroy it, suggesting the Buddhist notion of the impermanence of all things. Pieces of confetti stick to the dancers' black pants, dropping off from their clothes or flying off into space when they make swirling, sweeping movements.

There is a reverence about the piece—it is certainly Shen Wei's towards the Tibetan people — and a gestural system that suggests, by turn, prayer, labor in the fields, submission, forced silence (as a result of the Chinese invasion), balance, gentleness, endurance, nature, mystery, holiness and the graceful movements of robed monks.

As in the first piece, there is much repetition, but here the justification is that like meditation, it calms the mind. A few audience members left or fell asleep, but I appreciated the respite from our hyperactive, noise-filled lives.

Perhaps my expectations of the performance were so high that I was bound to be disappointed. The evening with the Shen Wei Dance Arts was pleasant and admirable, but it was not transcendent.
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