Shen Wei Dance Arts at Perelman Theater

2 minute read
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An artist in spite of the regime


Shen Wei was a child performer in the famed Chinese Opera, trained with the prestigious Hunan State Xian Opera and was an original member of the breakthrough Guangdong Modern Dance Company, said to be China’s first modern company. Today he is master choreographer, painter and designer of a conceptual dance genre that’s just as much art installation, if not outright political statement.

To watch his 2006 work Map is to see the work of the artist under repressive regimes. Shen Wei’s performance at the Perelman on a recent Sunday conjured up images of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn secretly writing The Gulag Archipelago. Or Reinaldo Arenas hiding his manuscripts under rocks and having them smuggled outside of Cuba while he was imprisoned for being homosexual. Like those artists, Shen Wei’s artistic vision escaped his government’s control.

As beautifully meditative as Map is, it’s also a primal scream exploration of the choreographer‘s creative process. Map dissects Shen Wei’s movement language by showing undecorated isolations that set up physiological reality. His seven sections— like Rotation, Bouncing, Isolation— constitute markers for the dancer’s interior world. The solos of “Individual Map” explore each dancer’s imprimatur under the same movement regime, against Wei’s painted backdrop of chalkboard calculations, some looking like abacus sums, some looking like computer motherboards.

When repetition appears in choreography, one always braces oneself for boredom. Shen Wei uses it as a devise to expose the mechanics of his steps and build something more textured and nuanced. The effect is transcendental for the dancers and the audience alike. It’s evocative rather than merely hypnotic.

In isolating sections of the body, Shen Wei’s dancers use their sternum, not their mid-section, as the fulcrum of their movement phrase. Wei works all his dancers like a corps, to construct a choreographic matrix. Their attack displays a performance level of liberated concentration. And like Merce Cunningham’s Biped, the choreographer pushes dancer endurance as a transcendent movement device.

Steve Reich’s score is dramatically progressive and reflexive, the striations creating an expansive sound field. Wei’s abstract configurations are so cohesive that when his dancers lock into a unison pattern it’s visually penetrating on its own established terms.

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