Meet Shen Wei
Meet MacArthur “Genius” Award-winning choreographer and visual artist Shen Wei.
Celebrated for its “gorgeous visual imagery” (The London Times) and “mesmerizing flow of invention” (The Boston Globe), Shen Wei Dance Arts makes its Chicago debut with two masterpieces by Shen Wei, known for his awe-inspiring choreography for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Folding conjures up a dreamlike world at once ancient and timeless that draws “gasps of wonder and contemplation” from the audience (San Francisco Chronicle). The groundbreaking Rite of Spring, set to Stravinsky’s famed score, brings the fresh eye of the outsider to this well-known music. Shen jettisons all narrative, responding instead with a highly charged abstraction. “The visual and emotional impact is overwhelming,” says The New York Times. Performances are September 23, 2017 @ 7:30PM and September 24, 2017 @ 2PM at Auditorium Theatre. Tickets are available here.
What's your personal story?
I grew up in a family of artists and began studying traditional Chinese opera at a young age.
My parents were Chinese opera professionals, my father was the director of a Chinese opera company and a practitioner of calligraphy and ink painting. So my earliest training in the arts was from my parents. Our house was fun. I was born in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, when lots of arts academies were dismantled. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, there was an arts revitalization. When I was 9, I was selected to attend the elite Hunan Arts School and I began rigorous training in the many disciplines that come together in Chinese opera: dance, acrobatics, voice, and acting. The teachers there were very demanding and I didn’t get to see my family a lot.
When I was 16, after graduating the academy, I became a professional in the Hunan Provincial Xiang Opera. While a performer, in between performances, I had time to explore painting and art history. When China opened up to the West in the 1980s books on Western art became accessible and I was able to see art works I had never seen before. I totally fell in love with Western art, and above all Western painting. I started to explore painting first in ink and then in oil paint and was heavily engaged in the the visual arts. In 1989, after five years, I left the Hunan Opera, thinking I might study painting.But everything took a turn when, upon my mother's encouragement, I signed up for a dance competition where I won first place. From that point on, my passion for dance solidified. I enrolled in the Guangdong Modern Dance Academy, China’s first modern dance academy, where I came into contact with various modern dance techniques--Taylor, Graham, and Limon--and met a number of figures who were crucial early in my career. I later became a founding member of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, which we formed in 1991. Soon after that I began choreographing. And when I received a fellowship in 1995 to study with the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab, I jumped at the opportunity and moved to the United States.
During my first five years in the US, I constantly put myself to the test. I was searching for myself, looking for a link between my training in Chinese opera and my experience with Western culture. From where I stand now, it is clear that I owe much of my development as a person and an artist to both cultural environments. Without the challenges of learning from both environments and sometimes negotiating opposing views I would not be where I am today. For me, East and West can be a false dichotomy—I try to bring my work beyond these categories.
What was your intention behind creating "Folding" and "Rite of Spring"?
Folding was my first major work. I generally don't like to talk about it, because I want viewers to create their own meaning and be affected by it in their own way. The interpretation that each person develops is completely valid. All of this aside, I will say a few things. In 2000, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company invited me to make a dance, my first work with them since I left China five years earlier. Around this period, I was interested in Surrealism and wanted to create a stage environment that did not correspond to everyday reality—where bodies moved at a different pace and where events might defy a familiar logic. When I arrived in NYC, I spoke no English and the culture was totally new. So surrealism was not just an art movement that intrigued me, it surrounded me. In Folding dancers have a very particular walk that is drawn from Chinese opera movement vocabulary. It requires very quick foot movement with no visible movement in the hips, with the torso totally still, creating the effect of gliding. I painted an enormous backdrop, a rendition of a famous ink painting by the 18th century Chinese artist Bada Shanren, that adds to the Surreal atmosphere. At the time I was strongly attached to the simple action of folding: of paper, fabric, flesh—anything. The act of folding held many choreographic and design possibilities and it was with this in mind that I engineered the various foldings and contortions of the body, and the different ways a costume could bend and crease. Folding combines traditional Tibetan Mahakala Buddhist chants with the ethereal melodies of John Tavener.
As for Rite of Spring, I still remember the first time I heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I was enthralled by the score’s rich, evocative texture. I lived with the score a long-time, some 12 years, and continued to develop a creative interest in the piece. I finally began in-depth research on the music in early 2001. I was further inspired to go forward with this music when I heard Fazil Say’s performance of Stravinsky's two-piano version of Rite of Spring. Rite of Spring was my first boldly physical work to western music.
The music is what inspired the dance.The Stravinsky score is constructed with both technical complexity and narrative passion. For me, the music contained all the dramatic tension necessary without adding layers, so in keeping with my interest in abstraction, it is only the melodic and rhythmic qualities of the music, rather than the story it tells, which informed my choice of movement vocabulary.
Rite of Spring’s movement plays with the music in multiple ways—in movement quality and textures, in tension, energy, space. The choreographic structure relates to the music on multiple levels, as well as in timing –sometimes I have chosen to contrast, lead or suspend the music.
Physical/choreographic discovery was a very important part of the creation of this work.
The movement in this dance was key to my development as a choreographer – a lot of the movement impulses used in Rite – permeate my other works.
What challenges did you face creating these pieces and how did you overcome them?
During my first 5 years in the US (1995-2000), I was searching for myself. Not Modigliani, not Francis Bacon, not Lucian Freud, not Martha Graham, not Paul Taylor, but who I am. My search for self came through my connecting the links between my training in Chinese opera and my experience with Western culture. In these first five years, I constantly put myself to the test, primarily in a quest for myself. In 2000, I somehow “found myself”. I understood who I was. That year I made Folding and founded my Company at the American Dance Festival.
The challenge for me in making both Folding and Rite of Spring was the reprocessing of all my knowledge of the Chinese tradition in the world of opera, along with my conceptions of modern dance techniques. My ultimate purpose was to complete an analytical examination of the connection between body movement and internal emotion, which included experimentation with new techniques that I applied to body language. By connecting all these elements, I finally arrived at a language of expression that belonged to me. A lot of this work is evident in Rite of Spring, and it informed the development of my “Natural Body Development Technique."