Shen Wei dreams big. He dreams so big, in fact, that when Beijing asked him to lead choreography for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, he requested 16,000 dancers to bring his vision alive. We all watched, from various corners of the globe, as the dancers launched undulating ripples of human waves, pulsating and rippling around a giant unfurling scroll. Within the scroll itself, individuals created calligraphic patterns by dispensing black paint from their moving bodies in tumbling, swirling gestures. The result was a fusion of the arts, both physical and visual.
The performance was a grand homecoming of sorts for Shen Wei, who grew up as the child of opera singers in China's Hu'nan province. From an early age, he was immersed in traditional arts such as voice, theater, watercolor, and calligraphy. Shen's parents first thought he would become a painter, until he was hand-selected at age nine to go study opera. When China loosened the cultural reigns in the mid-1980s, allowing Western art books to flood local bookstores, Shen's eyes opened for the first time to non-Chinese arts — not only visual arts, but dance. In 1991, he was a co-founding member of China's first modern dance troupe. His curiosity eventually took him west to New York, where he immersed himself in museums and galleries and soaked up influence from multiple cultures and centuries. In 2000, he took his newfound artistic vocabulary to the stage in the form of his own dance troupe, Shen Wei Dance Arts.
The plural "s" at the end of "Arts" is telling. Shen has never limited himself to the confines of one genre. From the outset, he designed his own sets, costumes, and lighting. Many of his now world-famous pieces involve the creation of large-scale works of art through movement, with dancers creating actual paintings by wearing strategically placed packets of paint that are released through the body's contact with the stage floor.
What comes to Spoleto is a magical mix of genres, which is particularly exciting because one piece is a world premiere.
In Map, a piece he choreographed in 2005 and has periodically reworked, immense balloons (spheres and cuboids) are covered with Shen's encryptions — diagrams for the placement and movements of his dancers throughout the piece — and tethered to the stage.
In Untitled No. 12-2, Shen's large-scale paintings form the backdrop to dancers who take their gestural cues from the texture and composition of the artwork itself. Shen's extraordinary black, white, and gray paintings were exhibited earlier this year in a solo show at Miami's Art Basel. There, Shen choreographed a site-specific dance (Untitled No. 12-1) in the museum, with the audience following the dancers from room to room in intimate proximity. Untitled No. 12-2, the Spoleto premiere, is not at all a straight adaptation from museum to stage. The museum piece was merely a jumping-off point, or seedling, for the new work.
Per Shen's company manager Stephen Xue, the creation of Untitled No. 12-2 keeps Wei and his dancers in intense rehearsals (and thus unavailable for comment at the time of this article — not surprising, given Shen's legendary creative intensity).
Although hesitant to speak on behalf of Shen, Xue was able to give us a glimpse of the studio process. "Shen Wei is interested in generating a new set of movements," says Xue. "The dancers tell me he has been working with them to explore modalities, sensations, and energies that they have arrived at by studying and talking about the paintings."
When asked about Shen's inspiration for Map, Xue explains that it's threefold. "First, there's the concept of maps directing individual movements," Xue says. "Map is divided into very clear sections, each section with its own movement impetus, such as bouncing, or rotating, or internal isolation. Second is the idea of maps as directional diagrams [illustrated on the giant balloons mentioned above] of the dancers' sequencing or positioning onstage. And finally, the concept of music maps. Steve Reich's The Desert Music score is extremely complex, with a lot of overlapping rhythmic motifs that Shen Wei uses in the creation of the piece."
This may sound heady for those of us unaccustomed to thinking in abstract creative terms, but for Shen, single words such as "light," "static," "flow," "internal," or "sharp" are springboards for artistic expression. The result promises to be transfixing and staggeringly beautiful.