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Arts Festival Review: Shen Wei Dance Arts

Arts Festival Review: Shen Wei Dance Arts

Review by Lyndon Hood

Folding / The Rite of Spring
Shen Wei Dance Arts
St James Theatre
28 Feb - 2 March, 8pm
1 hr 50 including interval

Shen Wei and his company have presented two very different dance pieces, each with their own fascination. First The Rite of Spring, a dazzling display of virtuso movement, followed by the slow and enigmatic Folding.

The Rite of Spring is a choreography for Stravinsky's famous modernist ballet music. The version used is Fazil Say's four hand arrangement for piano. Without the tonal range of a full orchestra, the arrangement uses staccato attack and sudden silence to carry Stravinsky's roiling rhythms and cometing musical themes.

The choreography is a translation of this music into dance - and while Stravinsky's music makes reference to things like birdsong, I rarely felt the need to understand the dance as anything other than abstract rhythm and movement. The action roving all over the open St James stage, right to the black back of the space.

It began slowly, the dancers assembling in silence, gray clothes striped with balck and white, the colour removed even from the skin by the shade of the lighting. The formal pattern began to be disrupted by single dancers stepping about the stage, their bodies erect and hands still at their sides, on a curving path defined apparently as much by the others' location as any pre-planning. One stops, another starts, then more and the action begins to change. In the midst of all this, music starts.

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That kind of contagious action was a feature of the piece, as first one, then two, then more and more dancers would take up a new lines of movement, though often unsychronised and never in a chorus line. One could often relate the actions of dancers to a specific aspect of the music, and the crossfading of melodic lines in the piece is reflected in the action colonising more dancers, or being overtaken by another.

Movement sequences or styles seemed to be associated with some musical themes, appearing and reappearing; and the styles employed thoughout were as extreme as the tone changes in the music. There seemed to be variations - movements the shape of which I recognised from earlier in the piece but with the actual motions changed. A flowing solo, where the dancers every body part seems to be in independent motion echoed in another style as dancers twist and pull their limbs along a single axis at a time, contorting them into place. One memorable sequence where a solo dancer dragged and slumped from pose to pose while behind her a cluster of other picked up the movements and performed them with 'dancerly' grace.

And at one of the most thunderous parts of the music, they formed a line and stood, eyes closed, and seemed to take the music entirely inside themselves, the wildness showing only in momentary bodily twitches.

Finally, all the dancers are moving together with that same walk that dispersed them at the beginning, turning in a circle around a single patch of light like a soft, single organism that contracts, at the last moment, into the centre. I went to the interval full of excitement and deeply impressed by the company's technical skill.

The Rite of Spring was full of movement and displays of virtuousity; Folding is practically in a different genre. Slow and processional, imagistic and visual, its music more soundscape than melody, almost every moment begged interpretation, conjuring from us meanings behind the enigmas it presents.

Shen Wei, as well as the movement, took on the design elements that are so significant here. In front of the backdrop with its huge rendering an old Chinese watercolour (a fish in the upper left), between white curtains at the side of the stage, with a pendulum to one side that never quite seemed to connect with the action, the dancers are like tall alien grays in some refined kind of formal dress: white bodies with hair under a pale covering the comes to a rounded point behind their heads, red (and later black) fabric around their lower bodies in skirts folded together at the back and leaving a train behind them as they glide smoothly with that same walk that opened and closed The Rite of Spring, heads turned slightly to one side as they eddy in that direction.

The black-clad dancers arrive in pairs, one male and one female. Her garment is a dress running down from shoulder straps but the two are so closely together and the clothes so dark it is hard to see where one begins and the other ends. At first he seems to be growing out of her. The fold and collapse around each other, never quite separating, their white bodies angular against each other or reflecting like playing cards. Even when, in one pair, having been spun in loops around close to his body, she collapses entirely.

The red skirts return, with same smooth steps but their upper bodies twisted so that their faces turn upwards. One breaks away from both the group and finally from all that formality, actually stepping, coming startlingly close to the audience, moving into a graceful solo (your correspondent concludes this is Shen Wei himself). It's as if we are in the inner world behind the formality - the other dancers, clustered upstage, duplicate his movements, unsychronised. Then they move upstage into the now black space behind the raised backdrop. Their barely visible white bodies begin to slowly to rise; the floating formation of white backs closes the piece.

The whole piece was mesmerising, its majestic rhythm, almost unbroken, like floating underwater or in outer space. As much physical theatre as dance, and carrying aching feelings loss and desire.

Folding and The Rite of Spring make an intriguing mixed pair, the great strengths of each more impressive in contrast with the other. An invigorating exploration of the possibilities of dance.


Shen Wei Dance Arts on the Arts Festival Website
Full Scoop Coverage: Arts Festival 2008

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