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I spent part of the third section of Shen Wei’s modern dance showing at the Park Avenue Armory on Tuesday watching a shoeless young woman (a member of the audience who was, like me, allowed to wander along the grid of 60 dancer-inhabited squares of performance space), stare slack-jawed and wide-eyed at the topless performers smeared with paint leaping and spinning and writhing before her. Her proximity to them was probably jarring enough, but add to that experience the intimidating vastness of the Armory’s coliseum-sized hangar with booming surround sound and a reverberating floor, and it’s easy to see why someone might drop all pretense of understanding and question what’s expected of them.
The creator of the piece, Shen Wei, has quickly become one of those choreographers once prized in smaller circles for his incredible skills and masterfully crafted shows who is now fortunate enough to have people seek out his work simply because he is famous. That is, he’s hit the mainstream. He’d already won a Guggenheim Fellowship before winning the MacArthur in 2007, and recently helped produce some of that scary-amazing (and for some, simply scary) choreography that electrified the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He’s even created his own movement technique, which he calls Natural Body Development, and which involves a great deal of circles — twists and rotations and phrases that carry back around to their beginnings.
The three pieces being performed at the Park Avenue Armory show are so definitively different from each other that it feels best to just dive right in and tackle them separately.
Rite of Spring, the first piece, might have been better performed by a smaller, less well-known company than Shen Wei Dance Arts, and in a much smaller space. It is ambitious up to a point and then suddenly plateaus, which with a smaller company might be forgivable. The vocabulary feels restricted, but not consciously so, in the way poetic meter might, serving as a creative restriction that opens the imagination to expansive possibilities.
Rather, the movement is form-fitted to the music, and seems at times unconcerned with eliciting any emotion or reaction from the audience; it doesn’t recontextualize the dancers’ bodies in any meaningful way or hiccup my heartbeat with flurries of the unexpected. Instead it shares with the space’s jagged, marbleized floor design a formality of purpose: the purpose of being seen once and forgotten. Stravinsky’s uninhibited surging score (via pianist Fazil Say) falls away to background music in places, a roar reduced to ambient golf clap, stunted by the ineffectively nourished rhizomes and roots of the dancers making their way up through the piece’s underbelly. In the end, Stravinsky’s celebration of the fierce terror and unscripted passion of life as it’s dragged into being felt replaced by a modern, calculated, quick hydroponic birth under fluorescents.
Which is an odd reaction for me to have, given that I first saw this particular work performed in 2003 for the Lincoln Center Festival and loved it. Shen Wei is known to revamp his old works, fine-tuning and even recreating whole sections. If this is the case, then over-craftsmanship might be to blame, and a viewer only needs to wait until the next installment to see a better presentation.
Folding, the second piece, will irk those who view modern dance as a grounded form of ballet. But for those who consider the simplest gesture worthy of exploration as a dance, and who relish in costume design and the slow progression of what feels like figures in friezes breaking free from the confines of their molds, much like Michelangelo’s “slaves,” Folding is an enthralling, gorgeous sci-fi spectacle. The entire event carries a regal air, as if commissioned by Star Wars Queen Amidala.
White-chested, white-armed, white-faced, with elongated hair wraps (headdresses? are their heads elongated?), the first dancers emerge from darkness to rush stiff-backed along a murky blue-green floor, trailing long skirts whose colors split them into two groups: red and black. The Reds are flitting, twirling, independent creatures that often act in congress, while the Blacks are sealed together in pairs by cloth (like creepy, tragically conjoined Jake and Dinos Chapman creations) and spend much of their time engaging in excruciatingly slow acts of coitus and even slower funereal marches, dragging their lifeless twinned lovers in tow.
The Reds have a king, it seems, and the Blacks a queen (who eventually appears alone). There is a wonderful shift in the dynamic later, when the Reds find unity in what ironically appears to be a group disavowal of one of their own (Shen Wei’s own kingly character, no less), while the paired Blacks seem to locate a more enlightened individuality in the struggle of their pairings. Also, this marks the first performance in which I’ve seen a full-body Spandex suit incorporated, whose wearer arrives as a live-action “character” in what I assume is a mobilized bas-relief, appearing in the background like some glitch in the software of this binomial world. Perhaps this faceless character is the synthesis of Red and Black, or the worshiper’s dream of a Supreme Being, two parts folded into a whole. Perhaps the character is just a minor one, but because it stands out, it has all the cult-star quality of a Boba Fett, and stayed with me into the second intermission.
The final piece, Undivided Divided, received its world premier at the Armory last week. The dance is an exercise, first and foremost, in close-quarters voyeurism. Secondary is its focus on various expressions of sexuality — awakenings, confines of repression, freedoms and prejudices and patterns and failures. I roamed alongside the 60 individual tiles on a grid with everybody else and my first thought (along with everybody else) was My god, dancers have the most unreal, beautifully sculpted bodies on the planet. I will never have sex again until I can look like that or be with someone who looks like that.
I’ve seen maybe fifty dances featuring nudity, and nearly every time there’s a push toward formal desensitizing or desexualization that occurs, sometimes prompted by the choreographer or dancer, but mostly by myself, in order that I may see past the nudity and engage with the performance with more sensitivity on different levels. This usually takes roughly twenty seconds, before the expressiveness of the dance and the abstraction that accompanies kinesis desexualizes the bodies to some extent — not a degendering process, I would argue, but something closer to temporary collective alienation. Occasionally, however, I find myself confronted by a modern dance performance that burlesques itself, that invites its audience to maintain a sexual awareness, albeit from an agreed upon distance. This happens in Undivided Divided.
The dancers start off topless on flat square panels, wearing only the slightest thin nude material for bottoms. As the music develops, the dancers either leave their squares or search out new spatial areas within their squares. Some squares contain large dollops of paint: black, white, pink. Some contain Plexiglas structures the dancers climb up or climb inside. In one instance, a dancer, white paint smeared over legs and torso, slowly and deliberately, with caution even, enters a new square filled with fake human hair. Before long the dancer is squirming about, hair clinging to her in bunches, the strange erotic act effectively simulating puberty.
Another square nearby reveals a meshwork of yellow cords in which a dancer becomes entangled; whether he wishes to escape or to further entangle himself is left up to the imagination. The same goes for the woman trapped in her Plexiglas cell in the far corner — is this containment a psychological act of her own doing? Walking between these episodes, members of the audience linger and watch, or move on. I could understand how a viewer might locate in this experience a theory of sex-worker exploitation operating beneath it all. This very well might be the case, though if so, it’s readily undermined by how the piece began, with the dancers sticking out their tongues, which could either be read as “I see you watching me and here’s how much I care,” or as the rebellious strawberries of a young innocent.
In either case, along with each dancer a nuanced sexual history unfolds, though as the minutes pass, aspects of the spectacle begin outperforming any lasting cultural resonance the dance might seek to achieve. The movements, choreographed or improvised, become rushed and whimsical, and not always interestingly so. The work relies more and more heavily on its fleshiness and flashiness than any developing purposefulness or the powerful vibe of the ineffable. It’s pretty hot stuff, to be sure, and with Shen Wei walking around with his audience, it feels clear that this piece is meant more as a celebration than an accusation.
With any artistic production, you want more than the delivery of the goods you ordered. What I got was worth the price of admission, absolutely, but anyone who’s experienced the at-times subtle, at-times visually drunk magic of Shen Wei’s Re- (I, II, III) might walk away with the sense that this was a filler show between larger and more ambitious projects. The Park Avenue Armory is a perfect venue for these pieces in terms of pure space needed for their production; unfortunately, the scope of the project overall does not fulfill what the space seems to invite.
As for the dancers — they are incredible, and deserving of high praise. There isn’t a straggler in the lot. I tend to focus more on the choreography of a piece rather than specific dancers in large-scale productions, though a few individuals do jump out. From the Lead dancers my favorite performers are Evan Copeland (power), Sara Procopio (elasticity) and Joan Wadopian (power + shaved head + elasticity = plasticity) in the first piece; Andrew Cowan (sheer slowmo strength) in the second; and every primary and secondary dancer in the third, where keeping your cool with two-hundred-plus ogling onlookers up in your grill must be a bit nerve-racking.
As an aside, for those planning to attend future performances, you might want to hide some snacks in your purse. There are two 20 to 30 minute intermissions for stage and costume changes, which puts this production at around two and a half hours.
Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) opened November 29 and continued until December 4, 2011. All the performances were sold out.