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Rajika Puri
Performance Reviews
Spoleto Festival

SHEN WEI DANCE ARTS at Spoleto Festival USA 2003

by Rajika Puri
July 8, 2003
Spoleto Festival
14 George Street
P.O. Box 157
Charleston, SC 29402
(843) 579-3100

SHEN WEI DANCE ARTS at Spoleto Festival USA 2003

by Rajika Puri
July 8, 2003

Shen Wei Dance Arts, a modern dance company headed by the Chinese born dancer, Shen Wei, made its American debut only last year - at the American Dance Festival (ADF) at Durham, SC - but it is already a powerhouse of a presence on the art dance scene. This summer alone they appear at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, NC, then return to the ADF with the completed version of The Rite of Spring (an ADF commission), before making their New York debut at the Lincoln Center Festival 2003.

Shen Wei Dance Arts in 'Folding'
Photo courtesy of Zen Qian

And no wonder. From the first moment when the dancers enter one by one from the wings, dressed in variations on the theme of grey and black (designed by the choreographer himself) there is a palpable silence in the hall. Their clear intent, their white faces, and their gliding walk as they take their places along the wings capture the audience's attention for a long moment before the two piano version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring begins.

The aesthetic is modern and western, but underlying the choreography are principles of movement which clearly come from the Chinese opera tradition that Shen Wei was trained in and performed for ten years before he became the co-founder of the Guandong Modern Dance Company. Instead of leg extensions, we see dancers rolling on the floor, occasionally scissoring their legs as they lie on their backs. Their 'falls' are as reminiscent of the seemingly 'boneless' collapse of Chinese acrobats as of the controlled way in which Martha Graham dancers spiral to the floor.

The east is much more visible in Folding (initially commissioned for the Guandong company by the Brighton Arts Festival 2000), which Shen Wei describes as being about "the qualities of the singe action of folding - be it paper, fabric, flesh or other". The dancers glide around with the same 'heel -first toe-raised' walk of Chinese opera, faces painted white, swathed at first in folds of thick red cloth draped around the waist, and later in cascading black which often covers two dancers, one supporting the other.

The back drop is a huge rendition of an 18th century Chinese water-color, and reminds us that Shen Wei is not only choreographer and lead dancer, but also a visual artist who paints, designs and makes films. In a sense this work, is as much a moving three-dimensional painting, as a dance, and the music (John Taverner's Last Sleep of the Virgin overlaid at first with Tibetan chant) has a zen-like meditative quality which expresses the controlled energy of the dancers.

As in Rite of Spring, the entrances in themselves are compelling. Again and again, barely holding on to their swathed sarong-like drapes, they walked up the stairs on either side of Charleston's Sottile Theatre and then glided into action, creating an eerie picture with their head-dresses that from a distance made them look as if they were 'clone-heads'.

Other than Shen Wei himself, two dancers are from China and one from Japan. The other nine are all American and American trained. They have, nevertheless, captured the eastern quality of the movements with their focused gaze, sustained movements, and that characteristic walk. When Shen Wei himself dances, however, it is a revelation, since one sees his choreography best when he performs. He is a riveting performer, and it is no wonder that he receives the accolades that he has in the past. All audience members (as in Charleston) may not 'get it', but no one can question that they have been in the presence of something powerful.

(Also see Shen Wei's bio.)

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