Shen Wei Dance Arts at 15 opens the American Dance Festival 2015

The 82nd season of the American Dance Festival opened last night in the Durham Performing Arts Center with the most powerful performance yet from Shen Wei Dance Arts. We in Durham have a unique relationship with SWDA: It was here in Durham, at the ADF, that the genius of Shen Wei was launched into the wider world. Even as an improbably slender and supple student, Shen Wei caught the eye, and beginning with his earliest works, I have been a devotée. With the support and encouragement of the ADF, he formed his company in 2000, and has returned regularly to his “summer home.” Although he is now an well-established international star, and the recipient of a long roster of awards and high honors, he is, in a way, ours, like family.

Our brilliant little cousin is all grown up. The new work is a staggeringly beautiful synthesis of Shen Wei’s ideas about visual and kinetic mark-making; the revised older work has greater authority and expansiveness. Whether, as I have, you have seen everything he’s ever done in Durham, or you’ve never seen his work, this is a concert you don’t want to miss. Especially since ADF set the ticket price for this anniversary show at the year 2000 level.

Untitled No. 12-2 (co-commissioned by the ADF and Spoleto Festival USA) projects images of 11 of Shen Wei’s recent paintings as prologue and intermittent backdrops to the white-floored stage. The dancers make painting number 12. (The work was first performed in Miami, with the real paintings–thus the 12-2 designation.) Shen Wei tends to work at an operatic scale, thanks at least in part to his early training in Chinese opera: the paintings are very large, and the projections of them fill the back wall. In layered and encrusted acrylic and oils in many shades of blacks, whites and grays, these highly accomplished paintings remind us that Shen Wei was also trained in calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting, and that alongside his dance works, he has steadily made visual art. In these abstract paintings I saw gorges, caves, rivers calm or turbulent, birds, boulders…and the flow of time. The 16 dancers wear costumes in a similar range of shades, asymmetrical, with unexpected open areas, truncated parts, and grouped pleats like folded wings. Each one is different from all the rest.

So is each dancer’s movement. At no time during the piece are any two dancers doing the same thing. 16 people move together independently. They enter in a line, stage left, to move soundlessly in silence across it like a river. Maintaining their line, they dip and rise while flowing onward past our view. Later, the dancers make the rhythmic clicks of Shen Wei’s “Metronome Collage” sound design, and then comes Chou Wen-Chung’s music, Echoes From the Gorge, spare and haunting.

After their introductory crosswise flow of motion (compare in your mind to the upstage-downstage flow in From the Terrace, with its waterfall of bodies coming toward the viewer), the dancers activate the stage space in a different way, like breathing nature embodied. The tempo is the same as steady deep breathing, and even when one or more of the dancers holds a pose (like an egret, or a rock) the vital invisible life force remains uninterrupted, as the other dancers flow on, massing and separating, massing and separating, each behaving differently at every moment, but all using the same vocabulary of liquidity and angularity to tell of the wholeness made from all the parts. For this viewer, Untitled No. 12-2 is the most entrancing of Shen Wei’s works to date, with the most profound emotional impact.

Shen Wei's Untitled No. 12-2, in performance at ADF June 11, 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Shen Wei’s Untitled No. 12-2, in performance at ADF June 11, 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Shen Wei is master of many arts, and one of them is the art of contrast. After intermission comes his superb 2005 dance Map, in which the individuals in the 14-member ensemble often do exactly the same things at precisely the same time. Map is now even better with the addition of  huge balloons marked, like the 53′ x 30′ backdrop, with figures and symbolic notations concerning the dance and its dancers (both painted by Shen Wei, with some assistance). I was fascinated by the balloons–they are the opposite of the backdrop: volumetric; on the audience side of dancers and the proscenium, and they rise, rather than drop. Map is set to selections from The Desert Music, Steve Reich’s gorgeous, propulsive composition with mystical vocal elements, and like the music, has a mathematical aspect, as Shen Wei has the dancers explore a great many of the possible permutations of human movement. This work was thrilling enough in Reynolds Theater in 2006, but the larger stage of the DPAC allows more beautiful spacing and a greater scope for the whirling changes. It also looks more interesting now because SWDA has become a more physically diverse company. Ten years ago, the dancers were much of a size, all slender and fairly small. Often one could not tell if the body in motion was male or female. Now there is a range of heights and body types.

Shen Wei's Map, with one of the balloons, in performance at ADF, June 11, 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Shen Wei’s Map, with balloons, performed at ADF, 6-11-2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The dancers were on fire in this piece last night, twisting, rolling, writhing, jumping, spinning, swooping with the abandon that comes only with the control developed through repetitive practice under the eye of a perfectionist choreographer. Every night I’m not in the theater during the summer I spend watching the swifts mass, wheel, separate, swoop and return across the wide sky. I can’t give any higher praise than to say this dance and its dancers were as beautiful and heart-expanding as those soaring birds.

This program repeats (minus the opening ceremony honoring Baba Chuck Davis) June 12 and 13. See the ADF site for details.

All the possibilities of being human. Shen Wei's Map, ADF, June 11, 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

All the possibilities of being human. Shen Wei’s Map, ADF, 6-11-2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Gaspard & Dancers Deeply Impressive in 5th Annual Concert

Gaspard Louis achieved a critical plateau last week on his trek up the mountain towards success for his modern dance company, Gaspard & Dancers. The company presented its 5th annual concert in Duke University’s Reynolds Theater, and a great deal of the potential evident in the Haitian-born Louis’ earlier concerts was realized by the company as currently configured. The program on Sept. 25-26 featured the premiere of his newly-completed L’Esprit, the final section of his trilogy concerning the devastating Haitian earthquake of 2010.

Louis, a former Pilobolus dancer, has now been choreographing long enough to have found his own style, and has had the tenacity to hold his dream of a first-rate company before him as he has struggled, like all dance artists, to raise enough money to bring his vision to life. In previous years, he has relied on local and regional dance talent (which is not inconsiderable), but this time, he auditioned dancers from afar, and hired the chosen ones to work with him full-time for a solid month before the performances.

The Gaspard & Dancers company premiered L'Esprit in Durham, NC.  Photo: Robin Gallant.

The Gaspard & Dancers company premiered L’Esprit in Durham, NC. Photo: Robin Gallant.

On the 25th, audiences finally saw what Louis has had in mind all this time. This was the third time I’d seen part one, Annatations, and at least the third time I’d seen the central component Souke (Shake), which I also saw in development on students at the American Dance Festival in 2012. But seeing them performed by this tight ensemble of very strong dancers was an entirely different experience.

Louis demands not only strength and agility, not only lyricism and grace, but honest emotionality. His trilogy deals with matters of the spirit and those of the flesh, and is remarkably free from intellectual gaming and aesthetic artifice. Opening with the beautiful Annatations, with its watery travels and ethereal risings, moving to Souke, in which the world falls down and the beloved dead are reverently tended, and closing with L’Esprit‘s clarion call to live again, and dance, Louis’ Haitian trilogy is no slight undertaking. Both dancers and audience must open to the pain, as well as the happiness, of this life and death. Whatever your spiritual beliefs may be regarding non-bodily life on the other side of the veil, it is impossible not to respond to the life-force pulsing through the post-earthquake L’Esprit, in which the dancers light up our spirits with their joyous motion to Afro-Caribbean jazz beats and soaring trumpet.

Like all successful choreographers, Louis understands that the dancing alone is not enough–the stage pictures must be powerful, the lighting must make them more so, and the costuming and any set must reinforce the dance without calling undue attention to themselves. The music must both drive and serve the dance. In the Haitian trilogy, John Kolba has devised (with Jennifer Wood on Souke) three very different lighting designs that emphasize the different states of being, and Jakki Kalogridis’ costumes are excellent, especially those for Annatations, which have a lovely relationship with Steven Silverleaf‘s hovering angels (perhaps they are arche-angels). Randall Love and Paul Leary made suitably fractured, unnerved music for Souke, and cellist-composer Joshua Starmer has made a haunting and very beautiful piece for Annatations. You can hear it on or download it from his site. All this is by way of pointing out that the collaborative skills Gaspard Louis developed as a member of Pilobolus are working to his, and our, benefit in his role as choreographer and company director.

In addition to the trilogy, the concert on the 25th and 26th included Louis’s 2002 duet, Deux, which he danced with the powerful Kristin Taylor. It is rich in interesting lifts and carries, but more affecting for its nuanced look at a man and a woman in love and occasional conflict. The big surprise, though, was the opening number. In his day job, Louis is outreach director for the American Dance Festival, and in that role, he teaches part-time at Durham’s public charter grade school, the Central Park School for Children. He has worked with some of these children, now in 4th and 5th grades, since they were in kindergarten; they were joined by younger ones in Dance x 19. He taught them an adaptation of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas! And it was wonderful. Unlike the professional dancers who performed the work at ADF in 2011, they hadn’t had the playfulness trained out of them. And that offers another key to Gaspard Louis’ appeal: he just won’t quit working toward his dream of a national-level modern dance company based in Durham, NC–but he won’t quit playing toward it, either.

If you would like to help Louis take it to the next level, you can contribute to the company (a 501c-3 not-for-profit organization) through the website.

L to R: Christopher Bell, Frankie Lee, Amanda Maraist . Photo: Robin Gallant.

L to R: Christopher Bell, Frankie Lee, Amanda Maraist in L’Esprit . Photo: Robin Gallant.

ADF: Footprints–follow those tracks–and then th-th-that’s all, folks, until 2015

Leonie McDonagh.  Photo: Brian Farrell.

Leonie McDonagh takes her dancers over the top in her Footprints dance. Photo: Brian Farrell.


The well-programmed 2014 American Dance Festival performance season comes to a close this weekend with the final performance of Footprints in Reynolds Theater on the 26th. What a year it has been! full of surprises and fresh juxtapositions. I’ll have a few reflections next week, but right now, let me encourage you to follow the tracks and catch the three ADF-commissioned world premieres of the Footprints show.

The ADF has many roles. One is to support the creation of new dances, and another is to give the advanced students and young professionals in the ADF School the opportunity to work with choreographers and perform on stage. The Footprints program this year combines these two aspects of the ADF mission with that of presenting important, interesting new work to audiences. We get to see the super-fresh art danced by the fresh and enormously enthusiastic young dancers.

I have this theory that it takes about 12-15 years for the zeitgeist of a new century to really take hold. Well, kids, we are definitely not in the 20th century any more. We’ve passed that awkward cusp time when the ashes of the old are raked by all and sundry and may flare into a simulacrum of newness. These dances, as different as they are, share the complicated hyper-charged sensibility of NOW. The ideas about simultaneity that so intrigued artists 100 years ago appear thin and simplistic in light of the layering used by these three choreographers.

Leonie McDonagh literally piles it on in the hilarious opening sequence of Four Fingers and One Thumb. Netta Yerushalmy runs bands of action across the stage, making stripes of dancers weaving across the stripes of marley floor laid up and down in her Pictogrames. Carl Flink has action boiling out of the shadows in An Unkindness of Ravens, and overtaking other action before being layered over by another. They also share a sophisticated visual sensibility, so that color and light and graphics become key elements of the performance. Rather than single pieces of music, these dances have soundscapes.

Flink’s work is dark, full of strife, and I had a hard time engaging with it after the belly laughs and hot pink finale of McDonagh’s piece. But that’s just me, wanting to hide my head from war. And strife is not missing from the other two dances, it is just prettied up and played for laughs. All are very strong. As I heard someone say while leaving the theater, “the ADF got something for its money with these commissions!”

Recently I was chatting with a friend who was worrying about the decline of audiences for music and theater. I told him people were not going to quit wanting art, but the art would be different. In Footprints, it already is.


Carl Flink's An Unkindness of Ravens closes the Footprints program. Photo: ©Bill Cameron

Carl Flink’s An Unkindness of Ravens closes the Footprints program. Photo: ©Bill Cameron


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