"All art forms are related to each other," says choreographer and dancer Shen Wei from his rehearsal space in New York City. Shen, who studied in the rigorous schooling of Chinese opera, is also a painter, designer, and filmmaker. He's had his artwork exhibited in New York and Hong Kong, and created a series of paintings to accompany the opening of his Rite of Spring at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2003.
His choreography has been referred to as architectural, and he admits to incorporating architecture into the other disciplines he showcases. The piece they'll be performing at this year's Spoleto Festival USA, Connect Transfer, was the recipient of the New York Sun's 2004 "Best Choreography" honor.
Connect Transfer, originally developed in 2004, is considered a follow-up to Folding and Rite of Spring and explores the idea of painting. The 12 dancers (including Shen) literally dance a painting on a floor cloth through paint-soaked pieces of clothing. Some initial dancing is performed sans paint, presumably to establish a connection between audience and movement before getting into the extra visuals.
"We're discovering how the body moves: one movement to the next movement, the transition," says Shen. "And how dancers contact each other — how energy passes around and how they connect with each other."
Listening to Shen speak, it's easy to see how his poeticism could make for beautiful, evocative choreography. He has a rhythmic and lyrical quality, peaceful and almost dreamlike as he discusses the themes and inspirations, noting his observations of "footprints on the sand" and his desire to re-create that emotion from such an image, attempting to "trace movements" with dancers leaving behind their own marks on the cloth.
Sometimes, he admits with a laugh, it's a little difficult to break the dancers in his company of "normal" movement. They all have backgrounds in ballet, modern dance, and yoga — the older, classical dance techniques that help get a dancer's body strong, he says. That training is sometimes hard to shake out of the dancers. "I have to say 'think only this technique.' It may take years to really get into the technique," he says.
Shen is constantly trying to open up his dancers to other art forms as well. "I always tell them 'go to the art gallery,' or I show books to them... when I created Rite of Spring, I brought paintings and books to help them understand what 'abstract' means in other art forms, to help them understand my technique."
The middle child of a poor family in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Shen tagged along for his older brother's audition at the new Hunan Arts School. "We didn't have enough food to eat," he says, so the hopes were pinned on his older brother getting in. He didn't, but Shen ended up being admitted instead. His father was an opera singer, his brother knew how to sing opera, and Shen had a broader arts interest. "I liked to paint, to do calligraphy; I loved dance."
And with Shen Wei Dance Arts he does all of it. The floor-cloth paintings created by the performances will be available for sale, making it wholly possible to hang a piece of dance on your walls.
Shen Wei Dance Arts' Connect Transfer • Spoleto Festival USA • $10-$55 • (1 hour 30 min.) • May 31 and June 2 at 8 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • 579-3100