DANCE; Playing a Serious Game of Twister
By VALERIE GLADSTONE (NYT) 921 words
Published: July 20, 2003
SHEN WEI'S choreography for his new work, ''The Rite of Spring,''
represents an intersection of two of his passions: dance and painting.
When the dance is presented at the Lincoln Center Festival this week, it
will be performed on a 42-by-46-foot abstract painting created by Mr. Shen
that looks like a giant game board with randomly crisscrossed brush
At a recent rehearsal in Brooklyn, he discussed his ideas for the piece
with his dancers. The studio floor was marked with white lines, Mr. Shen
said, to correspond to the brush strokes on the canvas. (The actual canvas
would be used only for performances.) The lines indicated where the
dancers were to take certain positions, almost like a blueprint. ''The
painting, music and dance all work together,'' he said.
The dancers began by taking slow, small, measured steps to the center of
the studio, as if taking part in a mysterious ritual. Wearing gray-toned
pants and T-shirts or filmy dresses and leotards, they seemed held by the
energy of the Stravinsky score. Then, suddenly, they were falling,
spinning and leaping into the air, even crawling on all fours. They became
still as statues, only to slither into contorted positions corresponding
to the music's jagged rhythms.
After seeing the half-completed work performed last year at the American
Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York
Times, ''It is hard to recall anyone else who has responded to the music
with such striking, stripped-to-the-bone abstraction as Mr. Shen has.''
''This is imagery and conceptualism with a difference,'' she added.
The audience, she said, seemed momentarily stunned, and a silence was
followed by a prolonged ovation. On Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, New
Yorkers will get a chance to see the work in its entirety at La Guardia
High School, where an exhibition of Mr. Shen's paintings inspired by his
''Rite of Spring'' will be on display.
After the rehearsal, Mr. Shen, 35, an elegant and soft-spoken man, offered
the dancers criticism. He told them to be careful not to reveal their
reactions to the music with their facial expressions. To create an
otherworldly effect, they perform with their bodies and faces covered by
white body paint. ''We aren't telling a story,'' he said. ''This is about
the music's structure.''
A painter and a sculptor, Mr. Shen developed his aesthetic growing up in
Hunan Province, China. Until leaving home at 9 to study opera at the
prestigious Hunan Arts School, he lived in a building that housed the
theater where his father directed and acted in opera. His mother was also
a theater producer. In 1991, after a brief stint with the Hunan State Xian
Opera Company, he became a founding dancer and choreographer of the
Guangdong Dance Company, China's first modern-dance troupe. He also
''I wasn't taught the arts separately,'' he said, ''so I don't separate
them in my work.''
Mr. Shen saw his first Western modern-dance performance in 1986. ''I was
shocked,'' he said. ''It was so creative. So much closer to my generation
than anything we had.''
On his own, he started studying Western art history, painting and
sculpture. But even with his growing passion for Western culture, he might
have remained in China if the government had not disapproved of his
dances, particularly ''1994, Beijing Summer,'' in which he unfavorably
compared China with more democratic nations.
Aided by a scholarship from the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab, he moved to New
York in 1995. ''It's the center of high culture and the arts,'' he said.
''I wanted to open myself up to all of it.''
Once here, Mr. Shen quickly caught the attention of the dance world,
winning commissions from Alvin Ailey Dance Theater II and other companies
and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and American Dance
Charles L. Reinhart, the president of the festival, which commissioned
''The Rite of Spring'' and other dances by Mr. Shen, met him in 1999. ''I
knew he was more than a shooting star and would hang around in the
heavens,'' Mr. Reinhart said. ''His works are overwhelmingly beautiful.''
In 2001, Mr. Shen established the 12-member Shen Wei Dance Arts company in
He has not forsaken his heritage. ''There are subtle things that I've
taken from China that influence how I think about life,'' he said. ''I see
simple things as very beautiful and recognize the power of silence and
He choreographed the ravishing ''Folding,'' a work inspired by the folding
drapes of costumes and set to music by John Taverner and Tibetan Mahakala
Buddhist melodies. The dancers wear brilliant red ballgowns that come
halfway up their torsos. (It will also be on the Lincoln Center program.)
He has again created powerful images by using his dancers as a visual
artist would. ''I think of them as living sculpture and colors in my
palette,'' he said.
''My work isn't about real life,'' he added, ''or about being Western or
Eastern. I'm exploring the unknown. I'm looking for a new way to
Photo: Members of Shen Wei Dance Arts performing Mr. Shen's ''Rite of
Spring'' at the American Dance Festival. (Bruce R. Feeley for The New York