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Shen Wei, the Chinese choreographer whose work with dance gives him a large canvas for visual spectacle, premiered another entrancing piece in Reynolds Theater on July 3. Re (Part 1), along with the 2005 Map, performed first, offered a clearer sense of the range of Shen Wei's concerns than we have seen in recent years and showed that he is now better able to integrate these disparate interests into cohesive artworks.
As a geographer of the internal cosmos, Shen Wei casts a coolly intelligent eye on the layers of interlocking patterns that make up our worlds and uses his superb dancers to limn his abstract vision, which is, I think, as graphic as it is kinetic. The choreographer designs his own costumes and sets, but more importantly, he often treats his dancers as if they were strokes from his loaded brush and he were painting scrolls with their calligraphic bodies. A couple of years ago, he presented a painfully obvious explication of this idea, with Connect Transfer, in which the dancers were smeared with paint which they transferred to a floor canvas as they rolled across it. The result was a big mess: the simple, if essential, idea of dancer as mark-maker was overburdened by the lengthy choreography, while the deeper concern — the continual balancing of order and chaos — was obscured.
In this year's dances, though, that concern was perfectly clear and presented, thank heavens, without the stiff device of a gridded floor that Wei used several years ago in his Rite of Spring, in which the forces of order overpowered those of Dionysian chaos. In both Map and Re, chaos and order counterpoise. One may gain for a moment, but the other swiftly shifts to balance the load.
Map is danced to Steve Reich's The Desert Music, rich with chant-like singing borne along on a rhythmic pulse. Both the dance and the music are somewhat like a Robert Altman film. You get the feeling that they existed before you saw "the beginning" and will continue after "the end." Certainly there are sections and vivid scenes, but none of these comes to a climax and a resolution, in a literary sense — they just go until they can't go any more and are happy to be a slice out of the layer cake of time. And we are happy to have them so: repeating but not repetitive, stylized, structured like a trellis, with tendrils finding unexpected routes through the frame....
The Desert Music is almost trance-inducing, but the dancing in Map keeps you highly alert. Gorgeously stylized, in the manner of the opera that Wei presented last year, with dancers as perfectly spaced and synchronized as any Olympic swimming team, Map manages to combine mechanical precision with exquisite grace. The dancers never touch each other and rarely look at each other, but they dart and flash through complex maneuvers with perfect awareness. One of Shen Wei's great skills is in manipulating density and space on the stage "canvas" to create a powerful sense of breathing life, and that was particularly noticeable in Map, after the monotony of Emanuel Gat's staging the previous week. Also in contrast to Gat's work was Shen Wei's thrilling musicality, which matches Steve Reich's rich rhythms with neat fast steps and his chorus of voices with a chorus of bodies.
Re, the new work, didn't seem perfectly jelled on its premiere night but was nonetheless powerful and touching. Even when I don't like a particular work of his, I think that Shen Wei is one of the most important artists working today, and the future may reveal Re to have marked the beginning of his mature period.
Four dancers stand within a large, simple, blue and white mandala laid out on the stage floor. The mandala's central circle is incorporeal, made of light. As the dancers begin to move, they work within the design, but suddenly Dai Jian's foot arcs through a blue line. Even knowing that a sand mandala is made only to be destroyed upon completion, that action comes as a searing shock.
The dancers, moving to very beautiful singing by Choying Drolma of traditional Buddhist chants, paint disappearing shapes in the air — shapes that could have come from any number of Tibetan paintings or decorative arts. As they move, often dervish-like, they take the mandala from purposeful order to undifferentiated chaos. (It is fascinating to compare this to the ordered making of the disordered welter of marks in Connect Transfer.) Re feels very sad until the dancers themselves seem to become the mandala. They delineate the center, they find the corners, and they make anew a serene world from fragment and faith. The winds of change do not destroy beauty: it is always there for the making, again and again, grain by grain, step by step, around the glowing center.