Voguish, Mysterious and Visually Enthralling: Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Guggenheim


(photo by Mark Sadan, copied from Ballet Co)

Early last week I saw Shen Wei Dance Arts give a Works & Process presentation at the Guggenheim. This was my first time seeing this company, although I briefly saw Mr. Shen in David Michalek’s Slow Dancing Films. (I think “Mr. Shen” is right, by the way: first name follows the last in Chinese?…) I know this company has performed at many festivals around the world, and is a favorite of the Lincoln Center Festival, and after seeing their New York premiere of “Behind Resonance,” I know why.

The piece began with a group of dancers wearing unadorned but gorgeous floor-length, gray velvet garments (strapless dresses for the women, skirts for the men) walking majestically across the stage, finding a spot then standing perfectly still, and making a pose. After a few seconds, they would move, walk to another place on the stage, or sometimes in the audience, and do the same, stop in pose. In a sense it was like a fashion show, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. They weren’t making runway poses; rather they were making various shapes with the beautiful fabric. One female dancer leaned up against a side wall, her hands pressed hard against it, and her legs about two foot-lengths apart so that the fabric made a kind of triangular shape, like a large cone. Another would lean over a rail aligning the ramp leading from audience to stage and wrap one leg around it, the fabric stretching over and creating a kind of fan shape.

After several minutes, the dancers began taking various upside-down positions when they stopped. One man sat in the middle of the stage, then rolled back on his elbows and lifted his entire body up, where he held it, his legs spread apart so that the fabric now made an upside down triangle. A woman did a hand-stand against a back wall. It was interesting because, as the dancers walked the material trailed flowingly behind them, like a bridegown. I would have thought as they lifted their legs into the air, the gowns would have fallen straight down, but they didn’t; they stayed put at the dancers’ outspread ankles. The lights were dimmed into a kind of bluish haze and it was so visually mesmerizing.

After a few minutes of this, the dancers now began to pair, men lifting women, both making the triangular shapes now — the men upright with their legs spread about two foot-lengths apart, the women in the air. Not all lifts were the same of course, or that would be monotonous; one man would be holding a dancer in a horizontal overhead position, another would be held upside down, another upright in a back T position behind the man, etc. And not all dancers stopped in pose at once; they each had their own timing. So, as one was posed, another would be in the midst of a lift or finding a position.

Finally, after a few minutes of this, the lights dimmed more, and, as some dancers were still performing the lifts, the curtain widened to reveal two women, now wearing only flesh-toned shorts, rolling together very very slowly on the floor. As they rolled toward the audience, their bodies would become entangled with the other so much so that they began to resemble one, two-torsoed, contorted body. It began to look like a two-headed mermaid crawling on the ocean floor. Then the opposite curtain widened to reveal another female dancer on the other side of the stage, this one alone, rolling very slowly as well, but going backward instead of forward. Her body would slowly bend back, first from the hips, then the waist, then the collarbone, then the chin. When she rolled back at the collarbone, she looked completely headless for a time. Both the ‘two-torsoed creature’ on the opposite side of the stage and this woman looked simultaneously grotesque and beatific. The whole thing was simply enchanting. The music, which I hardly remember since I was so stunned by the visuals, was by David Lang, and was simple with an air of mystery, consisting of a bland background hum spiked with some bells every now and then. And these were only some excerpts from the piece; I’d so love to see the whole.

Though Shen Wei is from China, his troupe is multicultural, as it seems is their repertoire. At times in the beginning of this piece, the dancers would look almost like Tibetan monks, the way they walked in such a determined, straight-forward manner to their chosen destination for a pose, where, even when leaning their bodies in a pained-looking manner against a wall, their faces remained impassive, ascetic. At other times, they kind of resembled elegant Western models.

Mr. Shen recently traveled back to China and throughout Asia, to Tibet and Cambodia. He’s currently making a larger work called simply “Re” as in re-birth, re-newal, re-envision, re-visit, re-work — fill in the blank basically, about these travels. He showed us some slides of pictures he took there. I was most mesmerized by photos of trees in Western China. These enormous trees would somehow grow not from the ground, but atop a building. So, he had these pictures of a gigantic tree centered right on top of a mosque or a house, its roots snaking down the sides of the building. They were eerily breathtaking, just like “Behind Resonance.” I’ll be very interested to see what all Shen Wei does with these images, how he translates them into dance. The project is set to premiere in 2009. In the meantime, according to Danciti, the company will be performing Monday night at Cedar Lake, with many others, as part of the Dancers Responding to Aids benefit, if anyone is going to that. (I can’t afford to!)

3 Comments

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