In 2002, just two years after Shen Wei founded Shen Wei Dance Arts, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times: “If there is something to write home about in the dance world, it is the startlingly imaginative work of the Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei.”
The verdict was prescient. As a dancer and choreographer, Shen Wei has performed on the world’s greatest stages and museums, including one of the biggest—the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, when he choreographed the segment called “Scroll” for the opening ceremony. With a single “qin” (an ancient Chinese plucked string instrument) providing the lean, spare music, a dozen dancers moved on a giant sheet of cotton paper laid at the center of Beijing National Stadium “Bird’s Nest.” As they spun and twisted, their paint-soaked sleeves marked the paper—mysterious until the end, when a giant Chinese landscape emerged.
Although less than six minutes long, the dance felt both grand and intimate—simultaneously drawing you in and expanding the imagination. It evoked ancient Chinese tradition yet projected a completely modern look, qualities not uncommon in Shen’s work. These are traits that the BAM audience will see from October 5 to 8, when his world premiere Neither comes to the Howard Gilman Opera House.
|Neither. Photo: Stephanie Berger|
Beckett’s text contains a mere 16 lines starting with “to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow / from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither.” It is hardly “theatrical” in any traditional opera sense. Feldman’s music can strengthen or dilute this unconventionality by making the soprano sing drawn-out phrases in her highest register, rendering the text completely incomprehensible. The orchestral writing is dense in texture and dynamic but slow in tempo, making use of melodically restricted repetition.
|Artist's rendering of the space, courtesy Shen Wei.|
The set he designed is taken from the “door” image in the text. “The door is a human concept. It divides as well as connects spaces,” Shen said. He also devised an ingenious way to reflect light, another major motif in the text. Strategic use of projections will help audiences see the text. But the dance itself is abstract, as is all his choreography.
|Fabric swatches for Neither costumes, courtesy Shen Wei.|
|Artist's rendering of dancers in space, courtesy Shen Wei.|
Maintaining a regular dance company in New York is a herculean effort, but Shen takes a philosophical point of view. “Life is like climbing stairs. Every step is a challenge. And you can’t get to the next level by skipping it. But as you learn more, with increasing understanding of yourself and the world, hopefully it gets easier and easier.”
Shen Wei's Neither comes to BAM October 5—8 for the 2016 Next Wave Festival, and tickets are still available.
David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.