Saturday, March 3, 2018

VIDF 2018: Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Playhouse

The 2018 edition of the Vancouver International Dance Festival is underway and last night at the Playhouse saw the Vancouver premiere of two remarkable works by Shen Wei Dance Arts. In her curtain speech VIDF co-producer Barbara Bourget said that she and her VIDF and life partner Jay Hirabayashi first saw Rite of Spring and Folding at the Montpellier Dance Festival in 2005 and that they'd been trying ever since to bring the works to local audiences. Lucky for us their persistence paid off, as together the pieces serve to showcase choreographer Shen Wei's eclectic intercultural and cross-disciplinary influences, combining the formalist rigour of American modernist dance technique (he trained at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab following his move to New York in 1995) with the ritual compositional drama of Chinese opera.

The first piece on the program was Rite of Spring. It uses the famous Stravinksy score, but transposed to two pianos. The result preserves the pounding rhythmic dissonance of the original music, but stripped of any expressionistic embellishments that might come from string and wind and percussion instruments. Likewise, Shen Wei chooses to ignore the narrative of ritual sacrifice, abstracting the tension in the music into formal patterns of stillness and commotion, striving and collapse. That starts with the very opening of the piece, with the dancers emerging one by one from the wings and amassing in silence on either side of the stage (there are eleven in total, although a twelfth will later be added, perhaps Shen Wei's one sly and McGuffinesque allusion to a "chosen one"). In turn, the dancers then each walk stiffly and slowly to a different spot on the stage, which is painted in a swirl of white lines that matches the cross-hatching of markings on the dancers' costumes and that suggests a grid that has been exploded into broken pathways. For, indeed, once the last dancer has taken her place, the others will begin to locomote like remote-controlled chess pieces along different diagonals and axes, gradually accelerating their pace and barely avoiding collision until the walking patterns are suddenly disrupted from within when one of the male dancers throws his body through space and tumbles across the floor like an acrobat.

I can't remember if it's at this point that the music comes in, but hereafter the stage is mostly a riot of asynchronous movement, with Shen Wei especially adept at matching the various crescendos and diminuendos of the musical score with startling kinetic eruptions: as when the dancers propel themselves from a sitting position vertically into the air, or when they repeat an amazing scissor-kick sequence from the floor. In this version of the Rite, the group is not seeking to avoid being swept up into the maelstrom; they are moving with all of their energy and force closer and and closer towards it, to the point where, at the end of the piece, forming a circle out of all of the angular chaos that has preceded this moment, they become the collective whirling eye of the storm.

Folding couldn't be more different in its choreography and tone and pacing. And also its music--which combines a bell and string quartet by John Tavener with traditional Buddhist chants. The work unfurls like a strange dream, and it disappears like one too. Key to this is Shen Wei's canny use of lighting (he is clearly an adept student of Alwin Nikolais in this regard). After the curtains part, still in dim half-light, we see two figures float onto stage, again from opposite wings; they glide upstage and then disappear. This pattern repeats a few times as the lights slowly come up to full and we gradually take in who these otherworldly creatures are: wearing long red skirts, their torsos and arms and faces covered in white body paint, their heads prosthetically elongated with padding that makes them look like aliens from outer space. Eventually five (or maybe it was six) of these figures will cluster upstage right, their backs to the audience, where they will begin a simple distributed sequence of rises and falls, interrupted by the occasional dramatic pirouette, their floor-length skirts kicking out violently from underneath them like a whiplash of blood. As this is happening, couples clad in green begin emerging, the upper bodies of the women seeming to arc out, as if surgically attached, from the upper bodies of the men. Shen Wei doesn't seek to explain how these two groups are related; he leaves it to us to make our own connections, to as it were engage in the process of folding and unfolding inside from outside (and it's really impossible for me to not view this piece within a Deleuzian framework). In so doing, it behooves us to simply give ourselves over to the visual and kinetic pleasure of the gorgeous tableaux that Shen Wei creates on stage.

And the unfolding of the last of these is perhaps the most wondrous of them all. It begins with a trail of the red-skirted beings floating in a line on stage, both hands placed gracefully on their thighs. As each member of the group begins to approach centre stage, the right hand slowly moves up to the chest as the head is then thrown back, as if each dancer is making supplication to--or seeking benediction from--the gods. Out of this group one of the dancers, Alex Speedie (also a particular standout in Rite), moves further downstage and begins a slow sinuous solo that for me was all about the breathtakingly boneless floating of his arms and hands and fingers through space. It was one of the most powerful kinaesthetic representations of pure weightlessness that I've ever experienced, and it will stay with me for a long time. As will the ending of the piece, which sees the stage returned to dim half-light, the rest of the group coming together in a mass as Speedie continues his solo, and eventually ascending on risers that we did not know were there into the heavens. Utter magic.

Less enchanting, however, was the size of the house last night. These are two major works of dance genius that Vancouver audiences absolutely must see. One more performance remains tonight, and I urge folks to drop everything and buy a ticket.


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