Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Poetic Fantasy in Motion: Shen Wei Dance Arts

Last Friday, the renowned Shen Wei Dance Arts, under the direction of Shen Wei, presented two richly textured and emotive pieces at Jackson Hall. Re- (Part One), a quartet created in 2006, was co-commissioned by the Mondavi Center, while Folding, a more epic production, was originally created in 2000 for the Guandong Modern Dance Company.

Re- (Part One) features hauntingly stark lighting by the legendary designer, Jennifer Tipton. The costumes and stage design, by Shen Wei, are similarly simple, but effective. A layer of light snow confetti carpets the floor, giving way/moving with/trailing behind the dancers as they move. The soundscape alternates between traditional Tibetan Chants and silence, and the four dancers move seamlessly, silently and organically. Slow and meditative at first, their movements seem sourced from internal impulses. As the piece evolves, the dynamic shifts as the dancers begin expanding their use of space, sweeping across the stage, and fully inhabiting their own kinespheres. Even as their movements sharpen and crystallize, the dancers retain a remarkable sense of lightness and ease in their actions. They fold themselves into and out of the floor, kicking up the confetti snow and leaving tracers in the air as they drag the particles along with them – a record, however fleeting, of their movement through space. This imagery is reminiscent of the sand art Tibetan monks meticulously create, then leave to blow away in the wind – a reminder to invest fully in the beauty of an image even while accepting its impermanence.

If Re - (Part One) is an exploration in movement sourced from internal impulses, Folding is the opposite. In this piece, Wei uses the set, costumes, dancers and music to create a grand, almost operatic vision bigger than any of the individual dancers. All the design elements come together to evoke surreal, poetic images that are at once very Chinese and universally mythical. The dancers wear “coneheads” (think SNL in the 80s), which distort your sense of where their bodies end, especially when they turn backwards and contort. Their costumes consist of nude (or, for the women, nude-colored) tops with either black or red “monk” pants. The backdrop is a traditional, yet fantastical Chinese painting (by Wei), and the lighting is bright and vibrant. The movement, rather than being organic, is idiosyncratic and functional in the way it services Wei’s grand fanciful vision. The dancers skitter across the stage which, because of their balloon-like pants, gives the impression that they are floating through space. They form surreal creatures by stacking person upon person inside of the red and black fabrics to create 2-headed forms that ooze and move about the space in a slow butoh-esque style. They create illusions of height, depth, mass, and, in the end, appear to climb a “stairway to heaven”.

Both pieces, while different, were lush with imagery and made for an enjoyable and contemplative evening.

Monday, March 3, 2008

ShadowLight: a concert of new dance-theatre works by Marija Krotolica and Randee Paufve

ShadowLight: a concert of new dance-theatre works by Marija Krotolica and Randee Paufve closed last Sunday at the Studio Theatre of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. The concert, presented by the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance, represented Krotolica and Paufve’s final projects in fulfillment of their Masters of Fine Arts degrees. In the interest of full disclosure, I use to be a dancer in Randee Paufve’s company (in fact, it was with Paufve Dance that I first came to Davis to perform at the Mondavi Center).

Paufve’s “spasm: as you perceive the edge of yourself at the moment of desire” began the evening. The strength of much of Paufve’s previous work has been in her movement invention and her meditative yet dynamic phrasing choices. She does not disappoint here, especially with her opening solo which begins in, out and on the cusp of a pool of light, but she also makes an interesting foray into the spoken word arena with “spasm”.

As Paufve’s polished dancers speak lines from “Romeo and Juliet,” they move in and out of relationships with one another while creating vivid images of love, pain, lust, passion and desire. While the text is familiar, we do not see Shakespeare’s narrative played out here; rather, we see an evolving landscape of duets, solos, trios and group mingling.

Paufve’s choice to use her professional company adds to the sophistication of the work, and it is especially nice to see an intergenerational cast, including veteran performer Frank Shawl, who has been active as a teacher, dancer and choreographer in the Bay Area for 50 years, and Diane McKallip, who has been dancing professionally in the Bay area for the past 3 decades, addressing and embodying issues of love and desire alongside their 20 and 30-something year-old castmates.

It is always a challenge to give dancers, untrained in straight theater, lines to vocalize, especially from something so canonical like Shakespeare. “spasm” suffers a little because Paufve is so precious with Shakespeare’s words. Since her movement conveys so much in its abstractness, Paufve could stand to fragment the text, use the words more sparingly as texture rather than for plot advancement, or imbed the dialogue so deeply in the movement that they become one. She does the latter quite successfully in the instance when dancer Rebecca Johnson is on the bottom of a dog pile struggling to get out the words, “nay, it is too rash, too sudden too ill-advised.” I would have liked the text to be this vital and inevitable throughout the work.

Krotolica’s work, “Mostly in Blue – the Hidden Syntax of Dreams in Translation,” seems to be a meditation on youthful innocence, as portrayed by UC Davis students Claire Blackstock, Valerie Carlin, Jo-Anna Gallegos and Christina Noble, juxtaposed with a worldly angst, vividly personified by Krotolica.

Krotolica is a remarkable mover and has a commanding stage presence, so I was most engaged by her solos, which took place in a fenced-off space. Her body displays contortion-like facility as she executes strong, slicing, forceful, urgent movements. She occupies every inch of her enclosed space, and moves both in sympathy and in opposition to the frenetic, lively music created by Michael Nyman.

The corps dancers in “Mostly in Blue” wore blue dresses reminiscent of Dorothy’s checkered number from the Wizard of Oz. They dance outside Krotolica’s fence while holding up mirrors, striking tableaus, performing solos and reading aloud from literature ranging from “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” to “Little House on the Prairie”. There are a few strong images conjured up by the group, but they are most effective in their ability to create a strong visual opposition to Krotolica’s solos.

I feel like there is much beneath the surface of Krotolica’s piece. Her choices seem so deliberate and her commitment is unwavering. However, this is a piece that forces the audience to read into the action, and make their own interpretations, as Krotolica does not spell out anything for us.