Shen Wei Dance Arts takes a Buddhist approach
There is a crisis of ideas in the world of today’s theater and film. Whether you’re seeing a top film about the angst of wifedom in white suburbia like in Todd Field’s “Little Children,” or the angst of being a white suburban couple like the one in “The Pain And The Itch” at Playwright’s Horizons, you may be prone to feeling a certain sense of déjà vu. In a world of post-postmodernism, where is there for an artist to go in a world of consistently rehashed subject matter? How about back to basics?
Enter Shen Wei Dance Arts, a remarkably refreshing and deceptively simple company trying to express in complex contemporary dance the intricacies of nature. And by nature, I don’t mean the human variety—though humans are involved—but that of the natural world, a universe decidedly not centered on us.
In both of his pieces performed at The Joyce Theater (Sep. 26-Oct. 1), “Rite of Spring” and “Re-,” Shen engages his company in the process of growth, aiming for an organic quality that comes across as distinctly sincere. In “Rite of Spring,” the company’s take on Stravinsky, the set is elaborately designed beforehand, decorated with errant lines running back and forth along the width of the stage. The costumes as well show not only the careful planning of the set, but also a decided audacity in the color choice for the company’s attire—an earthy gray. As the piece progresses quickly, in the span of around a half an hour, Shen does not force his dancers to move quickly or wildly, as to divert our eye or give us the illusion of complexity. Instead, he wisely decides to make the movement of his dancers follow the mood of the set, keeping the movement simple, synchronous, and constrained within the lines.
In “Re-,” Shen Wei’s new piece, we are once again given a set that is enthralling with performances that feel neither forced nor rushed. Though in “Re-,” the superior of the two outstanding pieces, the company stretches their boundaries further, turning their set from an intricate mandala made out of petals into a mesh of different colors as four dancers move through the arrangement on stage, turning it into a swirl reminiscent of a galaxy.
However, what really stands out about “Re-” is the delightfully talented Ani Choying Dolma, a Buddhist monk who chants in her traditional robes and walks around the stage planting herself inside Shen Wei’s natural world as her voice resounds.
In both pieces, the common thread that holds our interest is the idea of the exploration and recreation of nature, a sort of “Paradise Lost” syndrome. In each, Shen creates a world through his set design, music, and Jennifer Tipton’s excellent lighting. He creates the order of nature through lines and dirt-colored costumes in “Rite of Spring.” He creates the disarray and order of the universe through a mandala in “Re-.” How Shen chooses not to disturb or to clutter the worlds he has created clarifies his talent; what he leaves out of his choreography is as significant as what he has his dancers do.
For Shen Wei, it would seem, art is as much about creating a world as preserving it, rather than disturbing it through excess. His message of preservation is a powerful one both artistically and politically. However for an audience who has seen it all, his message may be less important than the humbleness inherent in what he is doing. “Rite of Spring” and “Re-“ may not comment on the dilemmas of humans, like “Little Children” or “The Pain And The Itch,” but it is a comment on the human dilemma of existence in a world where our actions our as powerful as the choices we may wisely forgo.