In March 2007, Shen Wei Dance Arts made its second appearance at Cal Performances, Berkeley. Two Years ago, the New York-based company of Chinese dance theater maker Shen Wei was a revelation and a surprise. (I reviewed their performance in the November issue of Scene4.) The painter, sculptor, designer, dancer, choreographer, photographer and allegedly even filmmaker (who apparently has been pursuing a career in several of these domains) offers a compelling fusion of Asian and Western art, theater and movement in his work. His choreographic scale ranges from purely abstract pieces (Sacre du Printemps, Map, etc.) to the luscious visual and visionary "poetry" of his dance theater creations (Folding, Near the Terrace, etc.). On that unusually wide scale, Shen Wei seems to continually absorb and reflect a fascinating mix of influences from diverse European artists, directors and choreographers.
Shen Wei's company has been busily making a name for itself in the international dance world. He has done the festival circuit of Europe, Asia and America, and major companies in the US and China have begun to commission his work. He has even been invited to contribute to the Opening Ceremony of the next Olympic Games, in Beijing.
On the West Coast, however, Shen Wei is still not a well-known name, and Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall showed many unsold seats, even on a Saturday night. I had imagined that the choreographer would make himself known to this audience by showing entirely new facets of his work. To my surprise, however, he chose to perform a program very much like the first one. He even repeated the first part, his Sacre du Printemps, and followed it with Near the Terrace, a dance theater piece in much the same vein and from the same period, 2000-2001, as his brilliant Folding shown two years ago.
Undeniably, the program is once again a good demonstration of Shen Wei's range, and perhaps these choices betray the slow methodical unfolding (pun intended) of a teacher who wants to educate an audience with little steps following his own path from the start. I am not sure it's the best strategy, but then reviewing a piece of art has, of course, its own merits and interests.
Sacre du Printemps
This year's Sacre du Printemps is now the complete piano version of Stravinsky's orchestral composition, but I did not think that the piece profited from being longer. It is still a tour de force to use Sacre as a purely abstract exercise, and once again, the sheer musicality of choreographic rhythm and movement patterns was impressive, to say the least. I again enjoyed the strangeness of the contorted movements Shen Wei favored, with their Butoh inspiration of disjointed limbs and strange and stressful weight shifts, floor gymnastic athletics, the astonishing Chinese opera technique of gliding-scurrying across the floor, and the explosive tempo changes. Once again, the cohesion of the company (Shen Wei himself among them) was flabbergasting – I heard another critic exclaim: "How on earth does he manage in such a short time to train a dozen dancers in such a stylized way?!" Indeed, Sacre was expertly executed by the old as well as new members of the troupe.
Rite of Spring at Cal Performances @Cal Performances
And yet, the piece appeared less exciting to me by comparison with its impact two years ago. Badly missing was the former focus on the one female dancer in a dress, with her aureole of golden hair in the midst of all the grey colors, tunics, even skin tones of the piece (everything, as always, designed by Shen Wei himself). This time, there were two women in a dress, both endowed with beautifully big-boned bodies. Their formidable shoulder-arm twists and leg movements—with both unballetic heft and balletic precision—were fascinating, but slightly unhinged the unity of the ensemble by standing out to the point of overshadowing the other dancers. A certain choreographic fatigue showed up in the extension of the piece – a repetition rather than further elaboration of the music. Now the absence of an energetic focal point or forward drive or choreographic crescendo gave the work a flatter, monochromatic effect, and the absence of the full Stravinsky orchestra suddenly made itself felt as an additional lack of thrill. In the context of the West coast dance scene of the moment, it also did not help that just a few weeks ago William Forsythe had swept San Francisco and Berkeley audiences off their feet with his electric choreography (see my review last month).
Clearly, a company has to adapt their own works to the constant changes within the group of dancers, but a perfectionist like Shen Wei seems to be working differently than, say, a perfectionist like Pina Bausch. I have watched numerous rehearsals of Bausch's Wuppertal Tanztheater struggling to get every movement of her "classics" exactly like at their first creation. There is also a film version of Bausch working a new dancer to exhaustion, training her to be the perfect replacement for the lead dancer for her extraordinary Sacre du Printemps. Shen Wei, by contrast, seems tempted to go on tinkering with his ballets over the years. One can't be sure to be talking about the exact same piece just a few years later. When you look at photos on the web you notice stark differences in earlier versions of the same works. He not only loves to extend his ideas (as in his Sacre) but to add a second part to something that seemed already complete. Near the Terrace is a case in point.
Near the Terrace
The piece performed in Berkeley at its West Coast premiere was only the first half, but it could certainly stand on its own. The direct source of visual and theatrical inspiration for the choreography was the work of Belgian surrealist painter Paul Delvaux, who died in 1994. Delvaux's paintings are one ceaseless obsession with beautiful, half naked and naked women who are wandering like sleepwalkers, with a vacant, cow-eyed stare, through a lifeless universe of modern or classical or futuristic architecture. They populate empty parks, city squares and train stations alike. Most often, they wear long skirts, long hair, laughably kitschy hats, and nothing else. They almost never engage with each other in their dreamy or narcissistic isolation. They often carry phallic lamps or candles like La Somnambula in Balanchine's haunting ballet. Every now and then, a few fully clothed "bourgeois" gentlemen stare at them, or a young naked man with an expression of confused misery wanders around among them.
One could read this painterly universe as an absurd vision of "the world as a bordello" and wonder how "surreal" such a sexual obsession really is. Clearly, however, it is a theatrical world and with its strange and strict aesthetic rules and its voyeuristic seduction it begs to be awakened into a tableau vivant.
The audience was forewarned about "nudity". Nudity tends to be a tricky beast in dance. The aesthetics of ballet are not exactly forgiving of dangling, leaping and wobbling appendixes or body parts that traditionally and for good reason remain hidden and contained.
Near The Terrace at Cal Performances Photo - Bruce R. Feeley
The first big surprise of Near the Terrace was the fact that the nudity was the very opposite of the cringe-experience one has come to expect. Women, their bodies caked and powdered in luminous white, are draped over a steep staircase (Delvaux's "architecture") that crosses the entire mid-stage. They are wearing flowing whitish-blue skirts made of something like old, tattered lace curtains or torn paper. Some have teased and powdered hairdos like crowns or crows' nests, one woman's auburn-red hair is cascading down her back. Some are reclining on the ground between tiny white-powdered toy palm trees that have an oddly poisonous aspect of crabs. One woman with cinnamon skin and Afro hair stands at the front, in a teal crinoline skirt, her back turned to the audience. The space is filled with white light like a sun-drenched castle terrace in an imaginary Arcadia, the "sky" a nostalgic, transparent blue.
The next surprise is that the beauty and milky perfection of the women holds up when they begin to move, to unfold from the stairs, and come down, accompanied by Arvo Pärt's dreamy, melancholy piano accords "Für Alina".
Every movement is slow motion, flawlessly maintained, revealing Shen Wei as the gifted student of Butoh dance theater groups like Sankai Juku and Robert Wilson's operas (Deafman Glance, Einstein on the Beach, etc.), both in terms of exquisite stage lighting and being a taskmaster of slow motion exactitude. Nothing happens apart from these gorgeous women (almost unrecognizable from their contemporary look in Sacre) descending and ascending the stairs, bending in strange exaggeration forward or backward as if to present their breasts to no particular spectator, and crossing the stage in these slow, tortuous ways. One older woman joins one after another of the younger ones and supports them, lets them lean over her back, and gently bends them forward and downward until they slide to the ground. The expression of all the women is the exact vacant stare of Delvaux's paintings. Near the Terrace brings the entire universe of the painter to life in one archetypal scene. At the same time, however, Shen Wei adds a dimension of poetic estrangement in his "live" version that replaces kitsch with wonder.
Near The Terrace at Cal Performances Photo - Bruce R. Feeley
A few happenings interrupt the tense, but monotonous flow. The music changes to Arvo Pärt's "Spiegel im Spiegel": the "sky" momentarily darkens to a deeper blue, a horizontal beam of red-violet light creates an illusionary horizon, and one of the big-boned "Goddesses", stark naked, bent into a backwards tilt, crosses the stage on top of the stairs, dragging a long, sumptuous sash of crimson silk. The image is strange and daring, as if Armani and Robert Altman in tandem sent Aphrodite as a model down some cosmic runway. One woman appears and disappears sporting one of those silly obscene hats the painter loved. A handsome Buddha-like male dancer joins the women, dragging a long white veil behind him that also serves as his wraparound skirt. Two men make a sudden clownish appearance and disturb the tableau as their banal pants outfits and capoeira movements do not fit with the rest. The men lift a few of the women and twist them into shapes that create weak copies of the marvelous couple "sculptures" in Folding. Just once, the monotony explodes for two seconds: two women make a frog-like leap from the ground, fly in a straight line along the floor and land with stretched-out bodies in the men's laps.
The ending is almost a rehash of the magical close of Folding. All the dancers ascend the stairs while the light is falling. Also imperceptibly falling are the backs of their skirts, casting ever more elongated, surreal body shapes on the steep steps. The scene has a mood of poetic incertitude when day turns into night and shapes lose their habitual definition. They disappear beyond the last step, the music ends. But this time, the vanishing is not the end. The points of heads, naked breasts and shoulders reappear in silhouette on top of the steps: the dancers return, this time backwards. In utter silence, accompanied only by the rustling of their skirts, they stiffly slither down again, head first, step by painful step. Only when they are halfway down the stairs does the curtain come down, leaving one to wonder: Was this creepy coda an attempt at a different ending? Or simply the cutoff beginning of Part 2? Was it a somewhat ironic commentary on the painful repetitiveness of obsessive rituals? The moment of truth after an illusion?
Compared with the spiritual, emotional and humorous depths of Folding, Near the Terrace seems one-dimensional, somewhat empty and decorative, and yet the piece is intense and intriguing like a sphinx. Are we watching an island of sirens? The seductive rituals of some temple in a distant past, dreamed up by Delvaux? A garden party in the Roissy castle of Pauline Réage's Story of O? One could go on ad libitum with this painterly Rohrschach by Shen Wei.
The Berkeley audience seemed breathless, puzzled, then ecstatic, applauding the small, shy figure of the choreographer as he bowed next to his formidable dancers.
Cover Photo: Near The Terrace at Cal Performances
Photo - Bruce R. Feeley