writers on dancing


Show, Don't Tell

Shen Wei Dance Arts
Lincoln Center Festival 2005
New York State Theater
New York, NY
July 19, 2005

by Lisa Rinehart
copyright ©2005 by Lisa Rinehart

Shen Wei Dance Arts' "Map," which had its world premier at the Lincoln Center Festival last week, is an unfortunate exercise of two kinds; it's a limited exploration of body movement and a choreographic testament to the wisdom of the "show, don't tell" maxim. Shen Wei has proven himself capable of stunningly beautiful and original work, but for "Map" he over-explains his motivations. (There are three full pages of program notes describing the dances' seven sections and their respective relation to music excerpted from Steve Reich's "The Desert Music".) This does not bode well.

The back drop—designed by the choreographer and drawn from his studies for the dance—sums it up nicely. It resembles a chalkboard in an advanced trigonometry classroom where, "Good Will Hunting" style, scribbled equations have been left for the next mathematical genius to figure out. The crossed-out figures, swooping arrows and circled symbols look impressive, but Shen Wei's choreography never breaks the code. We see only the ernest work of the dancers as they thrash and roll and flop through loftily entitled segments. Shen Wei's repetitive, slack-limbed movement is no match for the grandeur of the music and, with the exception of a series of trios in which three women brusquely move from one tableaux to the next and a clever sequence built around the deconstruction of a turn, the piece never moves beyond workshop material. In "Map," Shen Wei claims to have found "seven new ways to dance," but for all its intellectual pretensions it just doesn't add up to much.

Conversely, in "Near The Terrace, Part I" (a New York premiere), we are free to enter, unencumbered, a magnificently strange world. Set to the haunting "Fur Alina" and "Spiegel im Spiegel" from Arvo Part's "Alina," "Near The Terrace, Part I" is riveting. Inspired by the works of Belgian painter Paul Delvaux, the piece is less of a dance than a painting brought—just barely—to life. (Shen Wei's time spent working with Martha Clarke is evident.) Powdered, bare-breasted women recline on steep steps that ascend into a cerulean blue. Their vaguely turn-of-the-century style skirts of tattered white material cinch the waist and trail behind in watery streams. Men roll in and out like porcelain circus clowns in slow motion, creating a preternatural calm that's mesmerizing. And amidst the milkiness there's an occasional slash of red or black; a nude dancer bathed in golden light, looks godlike dragging a long crimson scarf along the top of the steps. Or, a statuesque dark-skinned dancer appears and exits wearing a large, blossom-like headdress resembling an open wound. We don't know what these moments mean, but the glacial imagery hovers elusively, enticing us to reach our own conclusions. The piece ends with dancers crouching in silhouette at the top of the steps and sliding down to the rustle of their garments like larvae emerging from sticky cocoons. It's a creepy image, but intriguing enough to make one wonder about Part II.

Shen Wei Dance Arts has enjoyed considerable success in the five short years since its founding in 2000. Shen Wei has received several prestigious fellowships and has been commissioned to create works for high profile festivals in Europe, Asia and America. The Chinese-born painter, dancer, choreographer and designer delivers pieces that are big, ambitious, and— because of their beauty—accessible. "I'm exploring the unknown. I'm looking for a new way to communicate," he states on his company website. He goes on to explain his work as a search for connections between dance, visual art and music. This kind of talk certainly sounds serious, and may be effective when trolling for grants, but finding a fresh and personal way to communicate is the goal of any artist. Ultimately the work will show us if the artist has succeeded or not. Shen Wei would do well to preserve the mystery of the creative process by letting his work speak for him.

First:  "Map." Photo: Stephanie Berger
Second:  "Near the Terrace Part I" Photo:  Bruce R. Feeley

Volume 3, No. 28
July 25, 2005

copyright ©2005 Lisa Rinehart



DanceView Times

What's On This Week
Index of Reviews
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us


Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Christopher Correa
Clare Croft
Nancy Dalva
Rita Felciano
Marc Haegeman
George Jackson
Eva Kistrup
Gia Kourlas
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Sandi Kurtz
Alexander Meinertz
Gay Morris
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish
John Percival
Tom Phillips
Susan Reiter
Lisa Rinehart
Jane Simpson
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Lisa Traiger
Kathrine Sorley Walker
Leigh Witchel
last updated on July 25, 2005