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.

ADF: Four Choreographers Dance ON THEIR BODIES

Ronald K. Brown. Photo courtesy of ADF.

Ronald K. Brown. Photo courtesy of ADF.


An artist stands alone before the blank page.

A choreographer stands alone on a blank stage.

Any mark is possible. The infinitude of choice paralyzes. But the force of creative will touches the brush to paper, declares an arc through space with an arm–and choice disappears, paralysis gives way to the requirements of the images and actions pressing their way into the world through the body of the maker. The calculating, crafting artist becomes the tool of the art.

And so it is in the penultimate show of the 2014 American Dance Festival season. Four very different choreographers whose work we are more used to seeing on other dancers, perform personal acts of soul-baring, painting the stage space with their ephemeral kinetic inks, in a quartet of meditations on time, death and transitions. This special concert will repeat 7/23 in the DPAC.

Shen Wei. Photo: Stephen Xue.

Shen Wei. Photo: Stephen Xue.

Shen Wei, the slim body of his youth given way to the thicker forms of middle-age, legs and torso draped in sheer white jersey and feet encased in white socks, danced his 2014 Variations alone on white marley to the gently solemn sounds of Arvo Part’s Variations for the Healing of Arinushka. He is no less graceful than the youth who so amazed us all as a young ADF student, but far more powerful now in his sinuous elegance that never fails to make me think of swifts and swallows soaring and swiveling through the sky. Shen Wei is such a man of the world that it feels extremely complimentary to have him consider Durham his summer home. The other night I was watering my garden and who should walk by, coming no doubt from rehearsal at the DPAC. It seemed so normal to see Shen Wei in my parking lot that I just waved and said hi. Turning his head in that impossible bird-like way, his arm rose seemingly of its own volition to complete the line of nose/shoulder/hand, and he smiled before disappearing down the alley. I got my own tiny personal solo dance, to treasure in my mental file of Shen Wei images, but the one he does on stage is not a fragment torn from time. It has a completeness that is enormously satisfying, even while one remembers this twist, that arm’s curve, those cloaked feet in stringent fifth position.


Doug Varone. Photo: ©Rose Eichenbau.

Doug Varone. Photo: ©Rose Eichenbau.

Three ADF-commissioned world premieres follow, the first and most emotional by Doug Varone. He dances his work The Fabulist to David Lang’s exquisite Death Speaks (uncredited, but probably Shara Worden singing) in cones of smoky light cutting the dark. Varone is, I believe, a great humanist. Something, probably honesty, makes his movement powerfully touching–you feel like he is telling you secrets in the dark. He’s got a bullet head and is built like a tank but moves like a…man. The bottom several inches of his pant legs are sheer, and through them you see his strong slim ankles, while most of his body is covered. I was brought to tears by this sight and pretty much all of the dance. If Varone has ever interested you, do not miss this solo.


Stephen Petronio. Photo: ©Sarah Silver.

Stephen Petronio. Photo: ©Sarah Silver.

A less satisfying piece by Stephen Petronio comes next. Big Daddy is about Petronio’s father, and yes, there is talking. Petronio wears a suit and a headset–and speaks from a podium microphone as well. He wears too many clothes and does not dance enough. At first I feared the piece would be as dreadfully self-centered as Loudon Wainwright III’s one-man show about his father, but actually, Petronio’s writing was beautiful. I was just disappointed not to see him really open up with those huge shapes he can make.

The evening closes with the luminous Ron K. Brown, in his new work Through Time and Culture. Brown, who is brown, was dressed in pristine white pants and knee-length tunic, which set a meditative tone and set off his beautiful beaming face and expressive hands and feet. I never have perceived ideas in Brown’s work so much as feelings, and feelings pour forth with abundance here. Reverence is the greatest among them, and gratitude.

Each artist received much applause–Shen Wei being treated like home folks–and at the final bow, all received a long standing ovation, which appeared to surprise them all very much. Surprise them again tonight. ADF has been promoting the show with $15 tickets. Use promo code ADFLEGENDS.


Dedicated to the dancing memory of my aunt, Mary Carolyn Dobbs, who left her body July 23, 2014.

The 605 Collective Stomps the Auteur Approach to Choreography

The 605 Collective. Photo: David Cooper.

The 605 Collective. Photo: David Cooper.

A very interesting small company from Vancouver, Canada, made its American Dance Festival debut June 15. The 605 Collective will repeat its fierce and funny one-hour program, Audible, again tonight in Reynolds Theater at Duke. It is fascinating to see this group immediately following Shen Wei.

Shen Wei is an artist with a powerful individual vision, which he refines and calibrates to the micro-millimeter. His dancers are marvelous, but you always know they carry out his ideas–they are his paint. But a collective does things very differently, and it shows in the robust individuality of the dancers. It’s paradoxical: As a collective, they make group decisions, but each dancer has an autonomy–a will, a capacity to choose and act–that dancers serving another’s vision do not.

It is particularly piquant to observe this contrast between The 605 Collective and Shen Wei Dance Arts when, by coincidence or good management on the part of ADF Director Jodee Nimerichter, the two deal with very similar material. Contemporary urban life, with its isolation and crowding, its deepening involvement with mediated communication and manipulation; and the overriding human need to connect somehow, somewhere, along the spectrum between aggression and love, are themes in both The 605 Collective’s Audible and Shen Wei’s Collective Measures.

Audible opens with a body pitching through space and landing noisily mid-stage. It is followed by four more bodies, each arriving in a similar manner. Standing, under grim lighting by Jason Dubois, they reveal themselves to be taut 20-somethings in drab grey suits. Soon enough they whip out imaginary cell phones. Thus begins an explosive dance of modernity that, as you might guess, is not plotted to the millimeter. So while they act out the bizarre near-misses and rough encounters of a fractured society, the dancers must in fact be tightly connected mentally so as not to hurt each other physically.

Some of the segments extended just beyond the edge of my attention span, but each one is very incisive, and they fit together beautifully into a highly dynamic whole. There’s a dance about following (as in social media) that super smart and mordantly humorous. And once the dancers strip off their suit coats and have more freedom to move, you realize they have got MOVES. One aggressive section in which they all wear red wrestlers’ ear protection will surely raise your heart rate.

The very composition of The 605 Collective seems to express the group’s philosophy. The dancers come from quite different movement backgrounds, which they purposefully meld. They dance about distancing because they believe in connection. In fact, before their program description of their work, they inserted a quote from Jyri Engestrom: “Being hyper-connected will become a precondition for citizenship.”

The 605 Collective. Photo: David Cooper.

The 605 Collective. Photo: David Cooper.

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