How’d They Do That?
Shen Wei’s troupe proves that they, not Beckham, are the true benders
Shen Wei Dance Arts has met, if not exceeded, everyone’s expectations for an original, imaginative, even stunning dance performance. In Connect Transfer, which uses three pieces of music, the 11 dancers combine movement and painting to create a visual arts experience of a different kind.
The dancers’ movements are reminiscent of rhythmic gymnastics, only with ribbons of paint rather than satin. The dancers literally leave their marks on a white floor cloth. During certain parts of the performance, dancers re-emerge from the wings with paint-filled socks on their hands and feet, leaving their stamp on the performance like carved initials in wet cement, as if to say “we were here.”
The only thing that’s missing from these very human moments is some emotion. With the exceptions of Jessica Harris, who had a lovely look of contentment over a faint smile; and Joan Wadopian, who appeared happily excited in one segment, the dancers have expressionless, cold faces which detract from the life of the dancing, the energy that visibly courses through their bodies like an electric current.
In the first part of the performance, dancers establish individual presences with limber, stretchy motions that seem like they will end in a pose but continue to grow and shape. For the first minutes there is only silence (and the interminable coughing of the audience — is it allergies, or the nervousness of being in a quiet room?). Eventually South African composer Kevin Volans’ 2000 piece String Quartet No. 6 plays as the dancers slowly form connections with each other. They guide each others’ body parts — one dancer will move another’s leg, and in return he moves her hand. Groups of dancers occupy different areas of the stage, and each group has their own dynamic, flow, mood, and pace. Some are more tug-and-push; others are slow and steady. Cheek connects to chin, and back of wrist connects to waist as they guide each other along the floor. Some movements appear to be at best awkward and at worst, painful, as if a dancer may be ready to cry out “Uncle!” as her arm is being pulled behind her back.
A soloist spins along the floor with legs in a full-on split and with one hand kept on the cloth (wow!); a couple tumbles with legs intertwined (double wow!). Connect Transfer is full of unexpected moves. Just when you think a leg most certainly will have to go in a certain position in order for a move to work, it doesn’t; it goes somewhere else entirely. And the move still works.
Shen has two solos in the production, which are identical, and serve as transition pieces. His breathtaking movement is sharp and precise; his waving, snaking hand cuts through the air with the same effectiveness of a hit or a chop.
The second phase of the performance takes place to “Evryali” by Iannis Xenakis (a Greek composer and architect who worked under Le Corbusier). The dancers lunge toward the floor as if being heavily plunked like the piano keys in the composition. The piece begins like a distorted ballet and is choppier in style. It evolves into some quick, sharp performance stallion twists, kicks, and trots. There’s another period of silence; in this one, there’s even more sound from the dancers’ feet as they drag, kick, and twist and slither jerkily on the cloth. The sound of their socks and mittens as they swirl along is a song unto itself.
Gyorgy Ligeti, whose music you may know from the Stanley Kubrick films 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, provides the score for the third part of the production. The dream-like, otherworldly music fits perfectly with the rhythmic five-person chain that swivels, arches, and meets (imagine a highly sophisticated, ever-moving game of Twister).
The dancers are clad in articles of grey and muted blue-black tie-dye clothing (designed by Shen), apropos for their romp in paint. Jennifer Tipton’s subtle lighting throws a wash of palest blue and diffused white, with a glowing warm realm used instead of a harsh spotlight to feature certain performers (especially Shen).
For those in the lowest orchestra section, it’s difficult to see the paint on the floor cloth. But once the performance ended and the dancers finished their last round of bows, audience members climbed the stage stairs to take a peek at the finished product. That finished product is evidence, history, a moment of sublime, hypnotic beauty and energy captured more beautifully and truly than in probably any company photograph.
Shen Wei Dance Arts’ Connect Transfer • Spoleto Festival USA • $10-$55 • (approximately 1 hr 30 min) • June 2 at 8 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • 579-3100