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Do Shen Wei's revisions improve Connect Transfer?

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Shen Wei Dance Arts performing Connect Transfer - PHOTO COURTESY OF AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL

Connect Transfer
Shen Wei Dance Arts
American Dance Festival
June 5-7

It's part of the artistic process—and the reason why the saying has it that works of art are never finished, but abandoned. Creators play with their creations. Painters add, take away, and at times wipe out the image on a canvas by painting a new one on top of it. Jazz and classical composers alike search old themes for further variations. But what makes a choreographer rethink a manifesto?

To be accurate, the term is mine, not Shen Wei's. But I applied it, with some care, I think, to the world premiere of Connect Transfer, popularly known now as his "paintbrush" piece, at the 2004 American Dance Festival.

At the time, I argued that work represented Shen's newest thoughts on gesamptkuntswerk—the German concept of the "total artwork"—in extending the possibilities of fusing the living sculpture of his dancers' bodies with painting, dance and music, all in real time.

At first, Connect Transfer seemed a carefully constructed primer of sorts, for those who dared follow: Individual figure studies carefully, deliberately folded the different planes of the dancers' bodies into forms that grew ever increasingly complex. Then, after pairs of dancers established one and two points of contact on each other's bodies, the dyads explored the full range of possible motion, back and forth, while maintaining contact. It beautifully illustrated the slowly phasing, shifting chords of Volans' String Quartet No. 6.

With these new rudiments concluded, we watched as the choreographer sent body-length arcs of kinetic energy across the stage, passed from dancer to dancer as they made contact and then pivoted and spun about, circles within circles on the canvas floor. The energy seemingly traveled from one of the body's extremities through the center and then back out, to make contact with the next human synapse in the circuit—what a human super spirograph might resemble, in short.

At the same time, I think we possibly were being sensitized, in the (unfortunately monochrome) arcs the dancer's hands left behind on the floor, to afterimages of that energy as it passed from person to person.

What I called the crystalline cadences of the second movement of Ligeti's Sonatina accompanied a final solo performed by Shen himself. The music bears the notation "Monument"—and it should. The proud, confident and austere iterations of its major chords signal a major statement—a monument, in short—by its composer. At the end of Connect Transfer's world premiere, Shen came out, stage left, at the front. He faced the audience, and executed a series of equally confident movements that seemed to summarize the achievement of the past hour. The music, the movement, the facial expressions and the air about the dancer capped an already growing sense of manifesto.

In that moment, it was as if Shen were saying, "This is what I've achieved. It is what I am, and what I do."

Certainly any critic—myself included—can overread into a work. Indeed, perhaps I have just done so again. But I did leave 2004 feeling that Connect Transfer was a major summation of Shen's work to that point, in all mediums, and his wishes (and abilities) to fuse those mediums as an artist.

This spring, I learned he would stage Connect Transfer again, during the opening weekend of this summer's festival: a "new version" of it, one altered sufficiently enough to justify qualifying it as one of the season's 11 world premieres.

It got me thinking: Of all his works, what would make him rethink that one?

I posed the question to his manager by e-mail. Eleven days later, I received a brief reply. Shen "created new passages to further explore the relationship between movement and visual art" in the earlier work. He'd shortened the work in order to set it in modern art institutions during an upcoming international tour. Finally, Connect Transfer "was abridged to distill the original to emphasize its most essential elements."

The new version unveiled in Reynolds Theater is briefer—indeed, to a fault. That sense of an unfolding primer for new dance, of organic forms gracefully articulating with gradually increasing complexity, is largely done away with here. The opening transitions between individual and small group dance phrases seem abrupt at places. Shen foregrounds the exquisite duet between a perfectly chilled Brooke Broussard and Duan Ni at front stage right—which tends to pull focus from the corresponding twosome of Jessica Harris and Cecily Campbell, front stage left.

In the new version of the work, a sense of nearly science fiction pervades the early sections—computer-simulated and impossibly perfect hypotheses of what the possible range of movements are in a number of unlikely situations. But the coldness that has worried critics in Shen's recent works is answered here in Sara Procopio's duets with several dancers during the piece. We not only see in her work an inquisitive, intellectual and aesthetic joy of exploration that we've long associated with Merce Cunningham. An understated, but undeniable, sensuality also accompanies her points of contact with the bodies of her colleagues on stage: In the ice of Shen Wei's work, at last, a trace of warmth?

The fantastic parabolas still astound us in the major passages, fiery catapultings of energy, illustrated with less monochromatic paints this time. But Shen's summation at the end seems significantly more internal, self-absorbed—and qualified as a result: What once was an austere announcement to the world now seems something else—something, just possibly, with more than a trace of narcissism in it. He repeats the sequences in his solo, two full times, but this reiteration does not reinforce the statement they made years before. Where once there was no question, now we wonder about the final section: Who is Shen Wei talking to, and what is he saying?

See a brief excerpt of Connect Transfer at the Indy's ADF blog:

E-mail Byron Woods at

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