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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

From Olympics to Neither

Neither. Photo: Stephanie Berger
By David Hsieh 

In 2002, just two years after Shen Wei founded Shen Wei Dance Arts, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times: “If there is something to write home about in the dance world, it is the startlingly imaginative work of the Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei.”

The verdict was prescient. As a dancer and choreographer, Shen Wei has performed on the world’s greatest stages and museums, including one of the biggest—the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, when he choreographed the segment called “Scroll” for the opening ceremony. With a single “qin” (an ancient Chinese plucked string instrument) providing the lean, spare music, a dozen dancers moved on a giant sheet of cotton paper laid at the center of Beijing National Stadium “Bird’s Nest.” As they spun and twisted, their paint-soaked sleeves marked the paper—mysterious until the end, when a giant Chinese landscape emerged.

Although less than six minutes long, the dance felt both grand and intimate—simultaneously drawing you in and expanding the imagination. It evoked ancient Chinese tradition yet projected a completely modern look, qualities not uncommon in Shen’s work. These are traits that the BAM audience will see from October 5 to 8, when his world premiere Neither comes to the Howard Gilman Opera House.

Neither. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Neither is a 60-minute monodrama for soprano and orchestra composed by the American modernist Morton Feldman to a text by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Their 1977 collaboration has been called an “anti-opera” because of their mutually professed aversion to wedding words to music. Shen Wei, searching for a new inspiration and challenge for his BAM debut, was fascinated by “the complexity and difficulty” posed by both the music and text. “I really want to see what I can add to their genius,” Shen said, “And how my visual creation and movement can help illuminate the world created in their work.”

Beckett’s text contains a mere 16 lines starting with “to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow / from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither.” It is hardly “theatrical” in any traditional opera sense. Feldman’s music can strengthen or dilute this unconventionality by making the soprano sing drawn-out phrases in her highest register, rendering the text completely incomprehensible. The orchestral writing is dense in texture and dynamic but slow in tempo, making use of melodically restricted repetition.

Artist's rendering of the space, courtesy Shen Wei.
Where others see difficulty, Shen sees stimulation. He was so absorbed by the creation of Neither in the past year that he completely ignored his other artistic pursuit—painting. (A work from a different period comprises part of the set.) “Their genius forces me to go deeper. It’s not just about understanding the music and the text. It’s also about understanding how the composer interpreted the text with music; then figure out how I can add another dimension.”

The set he designed is taken from the “door” image in the text. “The door is a human concept. It divides as well as connects spaces,” Shen said. He also devised an ingenious way to reflect light, another major motif in the text. Strategic use of projections will help audiences see the text. But the dance itself is abstract, as is all his choreography.

Fabric swatches for Neither costumes, courtesy Shen Wei.
Abstraction, modernity, and synthesis are characteristics that connect Shen Wei’s oeuvre. His dances are non-narrative. He has used music by Reich, Xenakis, Ligeti, and Taverner, as well as Buddhist chant. His paintings are abstract in form, although their monocolor evokes Chinese ink painting. Shen is as much a painter as a choreographer and has designed his own sets and costumes from the start. To him, movements and visual elements are a holistic process of creation. “A stage contains many ‘spaces.’ Every one of them can be used to illuminate my idea, be it dance, set, costumes, lighting. When I look at a stage, it’s a synthetic picture I see in my head.”

Artist's rendering of dancers in space, courtesy Shen Wei.
This all-around artistic expression took root early on. He learned Chinese opera, calligraphy, and painting from his father, a playwright and director steeped in traditional Chinese art forms. He studied Western painting and nearly pursued visual art. But he decided to become a dancer and moved to Guangzhou to attend the first Western modern dance program in China. In 1995 he relocated to the US on a dance scholarship, and stayed, dancing with Murray Louis and Martha Clarke. He developed his own dance movement called “Natural Body Development Dance Technique,” containing much that he learned, including Chinese opera and tai chi. “It adheres to no one discipline, no one tradition,” explains Shen.

Maintaining a regular dance company in New York is a herculean effort, but Shen takes a philosophical point of view. “Life is like climbing stairs. Every step is a challenge. And you can’t get to the next level by skipping it. But as you learn more, with increasing understanding of yourself and the world, hopefully it gets easier and easier.”

Shen Wei's Neither comes to BAM October 5—8 for the 2016 Next Wave Festival, and tickets are still available.

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.

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