The first lesson in nonattachment came early during the world premiere of Shen Wei’s Re–, Monday night at the American Dance Festival. Judging by the quiet gasps and murmurs heard throughout the audience, it doesn’t matter that we intellectually understand that a Buddhist sand mandala was meant to be broken at the instant of its completion.

After the opening moments in which dancers Lindsay Clark, Kathleen Jewett, Sara Procopio and Dai Jian finish a spare but beautiful pattern of concentric circles within squares that covered the Reynolds Theater stage, it still comes as a shock–nearly an act of violence–when Dai Jian abruptly disrupts the second of three layers, ruining the filled-in pattern, shuffling briskly through it back and forth, scattering tiny, weightless flakes of white and blue in his wake.

This mood of sudden loss is reinforced by the intimate recorded voice of Ani Choying Dolma, a Buddhist nun now living in exile in Nepal. Throughout the work, she softly sings a series of Tibetan blues, quiet songs whose occasionally sinuous melodies reflect Indian influences at times. (Lyrics and song titles were not included in the printed program; in an after-show discussion Shen said he wanted the audience to focus on the feeling of the music, and not on titles or words.)

That initial breach is minor when compared with what follows. Women lay on the ground in individual portions of the mandala; their arms and legs arcing across the floor with precision, as their bodies wheel about in sections of colored particles, spraying them apart. When the dancers rise, clumps of multi-colored matter cling to their feet and clothing, slowly dispersing as they move in a near snow-globe effect.

The choreographygenerates considerable suspense in the middle passage of the work as it subtracts, bit by bit, from the order on stage–and toys with our expectations at the same time. When the mandala’s center spot-lit circle and square remain untouched during the initial disruptions, we think they might be spared–and, by extension, that this work might ultimately assert that chaos in tertiary layers need not compromise the integrity of the center. The situation is totally available to metaphor; one need only fill in the particulars.

But dancers careen ever nearer until one flies into the heart of the mandala, shattering the circle as colored flakes fly out in all directions. When the center cannot hold, something larger, in the realm of metaphor, goes with it.

After this, only one line has not been breached on stage–the final white square at the outside which frames the stage, the performers and the work. Though the dancers refer to it increasingly throughout the middle and final sections of the work, they never touch or cross it.

Indeed, that square orients a series of telling gestures throughout the work. The dancers look outward from its four corners. When they do, their sober expressions and looks of recognition signal that they’re each confronting something. Though it is never named on stage during the performance, what they face is obviously serious, and large.

That mood changes, though, in a later passage when three of the four dancers appear to recognize something or someone else, beyond the front left corner of the square. They slowly walk from center toward that corner. They kneel. They never stop looking at what they see.

It’s an eerie moment of connection, of communion, between the dancers on stage and some entity or vision that, while good, remains at a distance.

That moment gives the passage that follows poignancy. The three dancers labor on, on a grid where no pattern, no order, no path remains. Random flecks of white and blue blanket the ground.

Somehow they return to the left front corner. Sitting on the floor, each dancer lifts one hand upward, in the direction of the missing center, while the other hand props up the weary body. After that gesture, Dai Jian’s character stares at the ground in front of him, in desolation.

I find I cannot read this work without its geopolitical context. Repeatedly, Re– refers to exile. Three dancers toil in one corner of the grid, while the fourth executes similar movement in an opposing corner. They gaze off toward something beautiful–and possibly worshipful–with which they cannot reunite. As the familiar patterns of the beginning are obliterated, the group toils stoically. Ironically, their own gestures and movements only render the world more random.

As I understand, this constitutes an almost complete inversion of the sand mandala rituals in Buddhist culture. I must read such a reversal as intentional.

Buddhists construct sand mandalas–intricate maps of the cosmos, with the houses of the Buddhas at their center–to restore order when the world becomes too chaotic. Traditionally, such rituals end shortly after their patterns have been swept clean from the space where they were made.

But when Shen shifts the focus here to the ritual’s aftermath, and not what came before, he tells instead a story of order descending into chaos–of patterns shattered, atomized and then dispersed. For the most part, the tale is told dispassionately. However, the sections toward the end disclose deep feeling.

And despite Shen’s remark during the post-show commentary that he ran out of time with the visual design on stage, there’s something chillingly appropriate in the mandala we see at the beginning of Re–.

It is clearly still under construction.

As I understand Buddhist mandalas, traditionally every inch within their boundaries is covered with colored sand. But here, four dancers add vivid-hued particles to a set of elements that have been carefully placed–apart–on an otherwise empty stage.

The concentric patterns are laid out in shades of blue (which symbolizes the highest spiritual state) and white (indicating purity).

But immediately it’s obvious: Large sections of the stage are empty, untouched by sand. Its color is black, an inauspicious shade in this cosmology.

Perhaps that adds, unconsciously, to the feel of something deeply wrong at the start of the work. Dai Jian is dispersing a mandala that is still incomplete.

Particularly given the context of exile–and the participation in this project by Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist expatriates–the question is irresistible: Was the work of the Tibetan culture in the 1940s and ’50s itself so completed, so perfect, before it, too, was dispersed by encroaching Communist Chinese forces?

Does this work, in turn, reflect the concerns of that diaspora’s individuals–the grains of sand themselves–that their culture’s patterns and folkways are being obliterated, that the map that leads to a sense of home is being erased? Is that why the final, outside frame holds–the only one that preserves the tale’s coherence, the one that ultimately never lets a single grain escape, no matter how far it roams from true?

I believe so. But I pay particular heed to the ending. After the desolation above, one by one the dancers rise. They find and face the corners, arms outstretched in positions of beckoning and eminent embrace. Then the four return to the center, where again they walk the circle that isn’t there, but still is. Thus ends a story about a road, told by someone who presently is far from home.

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