RE- (I / II/ III)
Shen Wei Dance Arts
American Dance Festival
June 18-20
Durham Performing Arts Center

By spring of this year, critics watching the career of Shen Wei had reason enough to be concerned. The diffident choreographer, whose meteoric career path since the turn of the century had largely been launched from Duke’s Reynolds Theater in a series of ADF-commissioned world premieres, was no stranger to staging second thoughts about his own work. His first major ADF commission, Near the Terrace, gently plunged audiences into the surrealist world of Paul Delvaux in 2000before a baffling, seemingly unneeded Part II left us with a sense of anticlimax the year after. More recently, revisions in 2008 that were ostensibly made to permit performances in art museum spaces marred the artistic manifesto of his 2004 work, Connect Transfer.

Then came word that Shen Wei was making major revisions to both existing parts of Re-, a proposed trilogy based on the choreographer’s travels in recent years to countries in the Far East. These reports were verified: Where the potent symbolism in the 2006 premiere of Part I had dancers violate a pristine Buddhist-inspired mandala by moving, falling and rolling through the small flecks of paper that made up its design, a January 2009 version in Durham had blurred the work’s earlier, poignant message about the Tibetan diaspora. Meanwhile, cancelled performances of a revised Part II only muddied the picture further, raising questions about an unseen Part III, which finally premiered at ADF last Thursday night.

It’s a profound relief to report that even as the revised Part II harkens back to the overtly surrealist and sculptural obsessions in his earlier work, the world premiere of Part III presents us with pointed, sharp-eyed comparisons between the two major cultures the artist has been exposed to: his native China, now being transfigured by profound economic and social forces, and the West, where he’s lived for the past 14 years. In their midst (since the completed work begins with Part III and concludes with Part II), a clarified Tibetan Part I now thankfully appears without many of the changes that had muddied its later incarnations.

Given the striking images of organic transformation that have taken place as the Cambodian jungle has slowly retaken the Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat, in retrospect it nearly seems inevitable that Shen would find parallels in the defamiliarization of the human torso he pursued in his 2002 Body Study for Ariane Rinehart. The new Part II seems to quote and advance the earlier work in its use of striated, twisted nude forms, painted and lit by Jennifer Tipton to resemble alabaster.

Political conservatives, meanwhile, will likely be too quick to read coercion into passages from the China-themed Part I, in which one or two people animate the center of a seeming platoon of olive-drab dancers walking (then running) in unison. In reality, these sections express about as much duress as electrons circling the nucleus of an atom. Shen Wei’s goal here more likely involves identifying the social conformity that gives context to individual expressions in Chinese society, before he depicts in Part III the comparative isolation of westerners, oblivious to one another, doing individual workout moves in American Apparel exercise gear on stageall with their eyes shut.

A more detailed analysis of Shen Wei’s Re- I/II/III appears online at Artery, the Indy‘s arts blog.

A note to dancegoers who thought they’d left the problematic sight lines of Page Auditorium behind them (along with those skinned kneecaps and vertiginous balcony seats) when the ADF shifted half of its season to the Durham Performing Arts Center: We’re not out of the woods yet.

After the new venue’s first modern dance performance, the news is this: Mid-house orchestra seats (row P, in this case) gave viewers enough elevation to recognize at least the general form of the mandala Shen Wei constructed on the dance floor during Part I of his trilogy. (The significantly lower elevation of the first five rows of the orchestra would probably provide even less visibility of any patterns placed upon or projected onto the stage floor.)

But it took another viewing on another night, from the house’s first balcony (called the Grand Tier) to confirm that the mandala’s design had reverted back to its original form from 2006 and not the considerably less subtle design incorporating Christian, Shinto and Muslim iconography that Durham audiences witnessed in January 2009.

But those stalwarts who favored the Page balcony for its superior views are likely to find the DPAC Grand Tier less satisfactory (if more comfortable). Where the Duke balcony afforded elevation and intimacy as it stretched toward the stage, the Grand Tier is set further back in the room. As a result, it was difficult, if not impossible, for audience members to tell from the balcony’s third row that those westerners in Part III had their eyes closed throughout the fourth section.

From both vantage points, important details of the set or choreography were either obscured or invisible. Our recommendation is this: Orchestra seats afford a view of all but the floor; to be safe, opt for the balcony and bring opera glasses to make sure you’re not missing anything.