Shen Wei Dance Arts: Neither
Saturday, June 16 & Sunday, June 17
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham

In retrospect, it was obvious. If grim Samuel Beckett, indeterminate composer Morton Feldman, and choreographer Shen Wei were going to meet anywhere, it was going to be in the bardo, that liminal space between lives contemplated in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Shen’s interpretation of Neither, the disquieting 1977 “opera” Feldman composed to Beckett’s skeletal eighty-seven-word libretto, seems to document transactions in that Buddhist analog of purgatory, a disorienting place of reckoning and transformation where souls work out their next incarnation.

In its early moments, groups of two and three suggest interconnected shadow selves, wearing costume designer Jenny Lai’s darkening shades of gray. At the same time, Maria Volpe’s extended floor-based solo seems like an endless ricochet, a sped-up, tortuous variation of a section from Shen’s Connect Transfer, in which charges entered her form from the ground and immediately fought to exit elsewhere through her body.

Elsewhere, this is contrasted with comparatively legato sequences of interlocking arms and legs, a logic problem set on what appears to be a human abacus. Still, for all of the activity on stage, these souls are clearly going nowhere, boxed inside a three-sided room. Its nine portals closed, as indicated in Beckett’s text, during early attempts to exit.

Feldman’s skidding wail of high strings and dissonant brass fits the comfortless lines of Beckett’s text, which fade in and out above the stage, in sync with soprano Petra Hoffmann’s eerie solo declamations. Designer Jennifer Tipton’s lights abet Shen’s misdirections, drawing the eye to one part of the stage while the choreographer makes subtle, unsettling changes elsewhere.

Transformation takes place when, one by one, the dancers reemerge in fantastical, chrysalis-like wrappings of sparkling, tinted (and audible) plastic. The forms that emerge from those discarded husks suggest souls stripped clean, ready for the next life, at the end of an onerous struggle.