Creating a Visual Feast

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The New York Sun

Close your eyes, and take a deep breath. It’s easy enough.

But try doing it all day, every day for two weeks — alone in a dance studio. Choreographer Shen Wei did just that. And he emerged not only with his sanity but also with a new technique for movement and dance.

“The breath can lead the body’s movements,” he said, stopping for a moment recently in a rehearsal studio to bow his head, take a breath, and float his right arm up in a soft, fluid arc.

It was a tiny movement, but it illustrated what’s to come in his latest work, “Re-,” which pays homage to Tibet and opens tomorrow at the Joyce Theater. The engagement — a week-long run with a two-piece program that includes his exceptional “Rite of Spring” (2002–03) — marks a significant milestone for Shen Wei Dance Arts, Mr. Shen’s six-year-old troupe. Tuesday is the company’s Joyce debut.

Mr. Shen — who was born in China and trained in multiple dance styles, as well as in painting and Chinese opera — has an unparalleled talent for meshing disciplines into smooth, fantastic worlds, and much space is needed to take in his creations that combine dance, visual art, theater, and music. For several years, Shen Wei Dance Arts has made its New York appearances during the summer at Lincoln Center Festival. The Lincoln Center venues could accommodate Mr. Shen’s majestic, large-scale works.

The Joyce Theater is built on a smaller scale, but the invitation to perform there was enthusiastically received. Mr. Shen has lived and danced in New York for 12 years, but his troupe sustains itself almost entirely on ticket sales from European tours. Presenting at the Joyce, a venue with a loyal audience, gives his company a more firm footing within the New York dance community. “It’s nice to be apart of it,” Mr. Shen said.

The visual feasts that he creates, however, are quite apart from anything else that bills itself as dance, at least on this continent. These are hypnotic works that sweep the viewer along at a pace that can be exquisitely glacial or violently urgent — sometimes both. They are detailed in the extreme, and yet wholly consuming.

“Folding” (2000) and “Near the Terrace” (2000–01) are kinetic tableaux of other worlds enlivened by precise, sculptural movement. “Connect Transfer” (2001) is a gripping combination of dance and visual art: Moving in articulate swoops, dancers with paint-filled mittens and socks produce a painting on the stage floor. Mr. Shen’s stab at “Rite of Spring” is a complex, wild ride that gives Stravinsky’s score a new energy. Like a gray sculpture garden that explodes into movement, then retreats again, it is worlds away from the many other dance works set to this piece of music.

But while most of his work, like “Rite of Spring,” is non-narrative, “Re-” has a specific inspiration: the land, people, and culture of Tibet. After a trip to Tibet in 2005, the choreographer found himself captivated. “Because of the high altitude, the landscapes look completely different than anything I’ve seen,” he said. “The people I met were so humble, so peaceful.”

The culture shock he felt upon return led to thoughts about working with the imagery of Tibet. “I thought, How can I take my feelings, the landscape, the people, the religion, the purity, and transfer it all to a piece that lets the audience feel what I felt?” he said. “I want to share it with people. So I went back again.”

On his second trip, he devoted his time to praying in temples and thinking about how to incorporate the Tibetan culture into his work. And he found his answer: breath.

To many, this can sound pat; every yoga instructor in town gabs about sending “the breath” into places like elbows and earlobes. But Mr. Shen’s study enhanced his style of dance and allowed him to “focus how to transfer the breath affect onto the human body.”

Back in New York, he spent time alone researching on his own body and creating a technique for breathing deep from the lower back, “as a singer would,” he explained.

After taking time to teach his company what he learned, he worked with one dancer alone to develop movement from that breathing technique.

The results as they appear onstage will be accompanied by a Tibetan nun, Choying Drolma, singing, chanting — and, yes, breathing deeply. The setting is a mandala, a symbol of wholeness, sprinkled with snow, and the movement is — as the choreographer puts it — “even more detailed” than his past creations.

And in yet another first for the artist, he has recently published a book of his photographs of Tibet. The addition of photography to his repertoire is another way, he says, of enhancing his ability to see the world and translate it. “When an artist is sensitive, he can catch things faster and develop something,” Mr. Shen said. “All my education helps me in being a more sensitive artist.”

Judging by Mr. Shen’s articulate, highly developed sensitivity, he is a most educated artist.

Opens September 26 (175 Eighth Ave. at 19th Street, 212-242-0800).

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