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.

1 comment:

Chrissy said...

While Re- (Part One) was a bit draggy for my tastes with the slow, Butoh-like movement throughout the entire piece, but certain moments and aspects, such as the moments of intentionally uncomfortable and tense silence dispersed through the piece drew my attention to even the slightest nuances of movement onstage. It was also very interesting to watch the perfectly set powder onstage (sand?) shift under the dancers' feet and create a "portrait" of the movement.

Folding, however, was my favorite of the two pieces and was aesthetically very inspirational to me. An underwater world was created onstage, with a traditional, ancient-style Chinese painting featuring fish serving as backdrop and melodic, droning music serving as the soundscape. Even the costumes, with oversized, heavy-looking headpieces, made the dancers look like octopi as they slid and glided about the stage, in and out of the negative space created by others and in ways so intricate that at times I did not know which side was the front of a dancer and which side was the back.

At the end of the piece, the dancers - appearing as ethereal sea creatures - moved upstage and up a staircase invisible to audiences. Audiences got a sense of these beings pushing further and further downward into the ocean, into depths so dark and pressurized that we could no longer access them.