Shen Wei artistic associate Sara Procopio at ADF: The Independent Interview | Arts

Shen Wei artistic associate Sara Procopio at ADF: The Independent Interview


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Artistic associate Sara Procopio
  • Artistic associate Sara Procopio
For most American Dance Festival students, it’s the stuff of dreams: After an enigmatic young choreographer spots you in an audition, you work for six weeks on what becomes the standout of the season.
Then he says he wants to start a company, with you, in New York.
That company rises quickly to the heights of modern dance, with seasons at home and performances in cities and festivals around the world.
When your choreographer creates dances for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, your work is viewed by billions of people when it’s broadcast across the globe.
And finally, ten years after those beginnings, you get to talk with an old friend on how it all came about.
It happened to
SARA PROCOPIO who, with six other dance students, came to ADF in 2000, and left with choreographer SHEN WEI on a path none could have predicted at the time.
Procopio is now Artistic Associate of Shen Wei Dance Arts. The company performs
Folding, Map, and The Rite of Spring over various programs, July 22-24, at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
We spoke by phone with Procopio in New York on July 17.

INDEPENDENT: You were one of the founding members of the group.


What was your first contact with Shen Wei; the first time you saw anything he did?

I first met Shen Wei at Hollins University in 1997. He came to Hollins for a couple of weeks in the midst of creating a solo show he was performing in London and New York, to finalize the show and prepare its technical elements, using the theater on campus.
He was a guest in Donna Faye Burchfield’s dance history class. He spoke of his experiences growing up in China and training in Chinese opera, but at the time his English was very limited. He taught a master class, and after his technical rehearsals were finished, he gave a performance of his solo show.
That was my first introduction to him — as a solo artist, and not someone who had a company or was interested in having a company.
I remember thinking that his solo was beautiful, and I enjoyed his master class. And that was that.

At the time, Burchfield was bringing in a host of guest artists to the dance program at Hollins; though he might not have exactly been just another face in the crowd, it sounds like he was just one person among a constellation of artists you were being exposed to.

Exactly, exactly. It was an experience — and then we moved on the next experience, I guess.

Fast-forward a few years to 2000. I was at ADF, and Shen Wei was one of the choreographers in the ICCP. [The International Choreographers Commissioning Program was a yearly project in which ADF invited three emergent foreign choreographers to create new works with ADF students and premiere them during the festival. The festival discontinued the program in 2006.]
I auditioned for his dance, and ended up being part of the group chosen to work with Shen Wei, for six weeks that summer. We created Near the Terrace with Shen Wei.

What was it about that experience that first suggested this might be something more than a one-off?

It was a really wonderful experience and process. It was kind of a magical summer. I have vivid memories of Shen Wei bringing in a bag of heavy, coffee-table visual art books to old Brodie Gym almost every day, with different images that were inspirations for him for Near the Terrace.

from Shen Weis Near the Terrace
  • from Shen Wei's "Near the Terrace"
Specifically, the books were of Paul Delvaux’s paintings. We would look at the images, he would have an idea, and just kind of group us together: “Why don’t the two of you try to think about a duet? Why don’t the two of you work together on this image?”
And to me, that way of working felt really familiar to my way of working with colleagues at Hollins: working with visual images, and being asked to improvise and create my own phrases that friends would shape and direct.
Another type of personal connection for me was the quality of moving very slowly we were working with in Near the Terrace. That spring semester, before ADF, I’d been working with the idea of doing slow walks and moving slowly. So there was an interesting connection as well: “Wow, here’s someone else who’s interested in this.”
There was just something about working with Shen Wei that summer that felt right. And the group of twelve dancers he pulled together: There was quite a range in age and very different personalities, but the group really got along and became really close. We were a really tight knit group.
There was just a natural ease to the creation of the piece. It really felt like something, even before we ever showed it to anyone in the studio. We would have studio showings before you went over to the theater to tech it in the weeks leading up to the concert.
What we were doing felt powerful and meaningful.

What sort of meaning? What was that power?

I’m sure it was a personal experience for each of us; something about all of the elements we were working with coming together. Even at the base layer, the movement, it felt like something to me. Then the music came in; then these duets.
I can’t say that I have a narrative in my head for it—it’s definitely not a narrative—but I definitely have specific images that the movement and music—transport me somewhere.
For me, it felt like this opportunity, in dance, to somehow transcend time and space; to connect with the audience, but also connect with something beyond the confines of the physical space and time in a theater. That feeling became stronger with each layer we added in; the movement, the music, the costumes, and David Ferri’s lighting.
It was like this whole world was created. And it just kept building.
Then we ran it in a theater with an audience. There was just something so wonderful about that performance experience. It felt so real, so alive.

Let’s take a moment and follow where those works transport you. Yes, both Near the Terrace and Folding create a different world, or at least a different place—a different culture, possibly.
It’s one thing for me to be looking in on these worlds from the outside as an audience member. But I realize I’m speaking with someone who, to some degree, has actually been in those worlds. What it’s like being on the inside in the world of

It’s a very special world. Actually, Folding is three different worlds, for me. It has three distinct sections, and I have costumes changes within the piece. Each time I re-enter the stage for the different sections, I have to put myself in a different place. Whereas for Near the Terrace, though there are two different sections, for me that piece is all one world.
The inside of the theater transformed into something else. I mean, yes, we’re on stage in a theater, but in my mind we’re somewhere else.
In the first section, it’s like we’re skimming along water; in essence, doing something that’s actually not humanly possible to do. But in my mind, I’m doing Chinese opera running; it’s running on top of the water.

It must be a very memorable experience.

Folding is very meditative, so that quality carries through each section, there’s something quiet about that piece internally.
But in the second, black, section, in my mind the theater is mountainous; it’s like we’re on a lake that’s covered with ice. It’s just about the feeling inside of the environment.
In the third section, the ways my eyes scan across the ceiling and the inside of the theater, yes, I’m looking up at a light boom or an exit sign, that’s the reality of it. But in the context of the piece, it’s like you’re gazing up at the clouds; you see birds in the sky, you feel the sun on your body.
You just go deep enough to transfer yourself outside of the actual, physical theater, you deepen the engagement so that you can be experiencing the movement as well as something deeper than that.

How would you describe your experience of the world in Near the Terrace?

I have a strong image for the opening: The surface of the stage floor are clouds, and we’re actually above the clouds in the sky. I’m walking through the clouds, toward people that mean a lot to me in my life: family and loved ones. For me, that piece is very much like being stuck in the clouds.
That’s something I really enjoy about all of Shen Wei’s pieces; you have the room to create what it is for yourself. There is no specific narrative; no “you have to be thinking this here.” Everyone has to find what it is for yourself, and make that experience your own.

I’m wondering just how far he goes with that dynamic. Merce Cunningham, famously, wouldn’t quantify the meanings of his works with the public. Nor would he verbally explain the content or narrative—if there were any—of individual gestures, scenes or roles with his dancers. How far does Shen Wei go down this path?

With Shen Wei, there is definitely a lot of discussion in terms of the quality of movements, the details of the actual movement, what exactly your body is doing in space. But in terms of, for example, looking at the images of Paul Delveau, there’d be only a little bit of discussion about that. He’d talk about the quality of the work in a more general sense.
In terms of the quality of movement, Shen Wei is highly specific in that: You need to know exactly where your body is in space and, exactly how you’re going to shift your body from one transition to the next. That makes sense: There’s a way, a technique, and a quality to the way you’re walking and shifting your weight.
Once you’ve figured that out, your body’s going do what it’s trained to do and you can add that next performance layer on top of that. Then he gives you the freedom to experience and find your way in that; he encourages you to create the space for you to find that for yourself.

In the case of Folding, he’s never sat down with us and talked about any meaning of the piece, other than what he said inspired it—the way you can crumple up a piece of paper or a piece of material and it folds, and when you let it go it unfolds, the movement happens on its own. That was the extent of the discussion.
He talks about the feelings, the internal energy, and the quietness and the softness. But never, like, the symbolism of the colors.

[The video above is an excerpt from The Rite of Spring, which the company performs Saturday night.]

A couple of questions looking back on the company’s first decade. What do you feel Shen Wei has given the dance world in ten years’ time? Do you feel he has changed it in any way at all?

The first thing I would say is that his work has a different voice and vision than anyone else that’s out there. I don’t think what he’s doing is similar in many ways to what else is being done, in terms of its visual aspects, and the different movement qualities he’s continued to develop. There’s a different way of moving he encourages. And as one who’s taught his work at various universities and festivals, and who’s passing this information on to younger dancers, I hear so many times, “This is so different from anything I’ve learned before. At my school, no one’s ever talked about movement in that way.” There’s valuable information that has come out of his vision.
I’ve watched my own dancing change and grow, and I’ve seen my students’ dancing grow as well. In some way, they’ve become a bit more versatile; they have more tools to choose from. I think that’s an important contribution.

You’re saying he expresses a unique vision. How would you describe that vision?

Shen Wei’s vision deals with the whole big picture, not just the movement, but the lights, the costumes, the sounds, in a highly detailed or specific way. All elements are cared about, paid attention to. I think it’s his unique way of moving bodies through space; having multiple things happening at the same time.
I know what that feels like from inside the work, but I often hear from people who have had the chance to see a work performed a couple of nights in a row say “Oh, I totally saw this tonight, but last night I didn’t even notice that because my eye was looking at something else.” On a second viewing, they have a totally different experience.

I know that experience by now. When I’m seeing a full-company world premiere by him, I know I’m going to have to get the second ticket for the second night. I know I’m only going to be able to see a fraction of everything that’s there the first time; more is going on than I’m going to be able to attend to in one viewing.

[The video to the left is from Map, which the company performs Thursday and Friday.]

If we’re trying to describe Shen Wei’s voice, how does it sound? What do you ultimately think that voice is saying?

His voice is putting ideas, concepts and feelings out there. And even if, for him, it means something highly specific, it’s presented in a way for an audience to experience and whatever they come away with as their experience. That’s okay.
In Folding, more audience members have the experience of layering a narrative on top of it. During the Q&A sessions, they’ll ask, “So did this mean that? And did that symbolize that?”
That comes up more with Folding than with any other piece. They want to know if the way they’ve interpreted it is correct; did they get it right? Shen Wei’s response is “It always is. If that’s what you saw, then that’s what it is.”

I think that’s something about the movement or the qualities of the movement Shen Wei goes after. Even when we’re improvising, the structure is so highly specific that it allows the viewer room to complete the experience. On some levels, for us as performers, sometimes the specificity he requires makes it about the movement. But we’re having our own experiences within that.
But it’s not about us as individuals.
I always struggle with the way to articulate this, because, yes, it is about us as individuals, because we’re bodies performing in space. But on stage, it’s about the group and the vision. It’s about each of our energies individually, that creates the collective energy that creates the piece. It’s never about one person.
Of course, solos happen and people have individual moments on stage. But Shen Wei’s always talking about the energy of a solo or a duet. What’s the energetic path of a piece; is the piece building in each element? Whether it’s a solo or duet, it’s your responsibility to keep the energy building. He talks in terms of energetic flow a lot.

What has Shen Wei given you in the past decade? Has time with him changed you at all?

It’s been an incredible journey. If you’d said to me this is what the next ten years of my life was going to look like, 10 years ago at ADF, I’d have said, “Oh, really? Are you sure?”
The opportunity to be part of this company, from its infancy stages to today; the opportunities to perform all over the world, on stages and at festivals I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to perform on.
It’s been incredible, to be a part of so many creative processes with Shen Wei.
I’ve met so many amazing people who’ve been inspired by that success. The group has changed and shifted over the years, but the people are some of my closest friends: life-long friends, that continue beyond people leaving the company and moving on to do other things.

Sara Procopio and Kana Sato, in Shen Weis Connect Transfer
  • Sara Procopio and Kana Sato, in Shen Wei's "Connect Transfer"
There’s the opportunity to dance, to be the performing artist I want to be, the opportunity for travel.
And there’s the opportunity to teach and pass on this information that has changed my dancing, and allowed me to grow and continues to do so. That’s really exciting and rewarding, to pass that information on, to students who are so eager for that information, who happen to be in places where modern dance is not as accessible.
I was recently in Italy, co-teaching with our rehearsal director for an educational project with a group of dancers that began last fall. That was extremely rewarding, to work with them in depth.

Shen Wei has significantly revised key works at points over the decade, staging different versions of Connect Transfer, parts I and II of the Re- Triptych, and others.
Sometimes when we’re looking at it from the audience, I’m not sure we know how to consider those changes.
How attached does somebody in that world get to a particular iteration of Shen Wei’s work? What happens to you, as an artist, when he comes back later and makes a significant change in it?

That’s an interesting question. It happens with Shen Wei… somewhat often.
He’s often tweaking things; trying something different out, here and there. Sometimes I think his eye is ready for something a little different in a certain place or a certain piece. Or perhaps his dancers change and the qualities a dancer has will inspire him to make a change.
When he originally made Re- Part I it was a quartet. Expanding that into an 8-person version, he wanted to utilize more of the company, to have more bodies in place.
When we went back to rehearse The Rite of Spring at the beginning of this year, there’s a section where five people do this intricate crossing of paths. I think it had pretty much been the same since he first made the piece. But when we came back to the section, he just said, “It’s not working.” With this group, he wasn’t seeing enough crossing, or changing, perhaps. So he decided to change the paths.
For me that was a big shift, because the muscle memory in my body is so deep. We had to rehearse it several times, and in rehearsals I was saying, “Can we do it a few more times, please? Because I really need to change the way my nervous system is responding to this.” (laughs) My body just wanted to do the path it had been doing for years.
It’s a particular part where there is no improvisation; it’s very set and precise so you don’t bump into anyone else.
There were a couple of us in that group of five that were saying, “Oh my God, he’s going to change this part!”
But the three other people were newer, so for them it wasn’t as big of a change.

Every night, something was dramatically different about the Re- Triptych when we premiered it at ADF last year, from the first night to the second to the third. We changed the program order, the design of the stage and the costumes got changed. It continued to change for the next couple of months before things finally settled.
In Italy, we were in a large black box theater, pretty close to the audience. And just based on his experience as we were rehearsing in there, Shen Wei said, “Let’s change the order of the Triptych again.” And we actually performed it in chronological order: I, II and III.
We had done that in rehearsal prior to ADF last year, but he didn’t like the feel of it at the time. We’d been performing it for a year in the order I, then III, then II—which is always a little confusing for the audience. But we tried it out in Italy in May, and we’ve continued to do it in chronological order since.

Sara Procopio with company members in Shen Weis Map
  • Sara Procopio with company members in Shen Wei's "Map"
In Map, there are going to be some changes that have happened in the last year. A female soloist has always started the third (section). Now it’s a man. That (section’s) ending has always been a trio of women; now it’s a sextet of men.

I think always with Shen Wei, as a dancer, you just have to be ready, to be open to that. Maybe there’s a little bit of an analogy to Merce, in terms of how Merce would roll the dice and the dancers wouldn’t know the elements until right before the performance.
We find out two hours before the show from Shen Wei and Kate, the rehersal director: “Okay, we’re changing the program for tonight.” And it’s just like, “Okay, here we go.”
And you can’t resist that. You just have to say, “Okay, we’re going to try. We’re going to go for it and we’ll see what happens. Maybe it’ll be amazing; maybe it won’t, but let’s try it out.”
But if you resist that, it’s just not going to be good for you as an individual or for your energy within the context of the group.

Sometimes he changes something—and then he changes it back. (laughs) He’ll just try something out.
And I respect that; there’s something a little rock and roll about it. It’s just, “Let’s go for it and see if it works.” There’s something about that that keeps things fresh.

What do you know about the new solo that Shen Wei is premiering?

Actually, I can’t speak to the new piece at all. Shen Wei has been in Monaco since end of April, creating a new piece on the Ballet de Monte Carlo. He joined the company in Italy for a week in May, but he just returned to New York on Wednesday of this past week. I’ve seen him the last couple of days at the company’s rehearsal, but we were just working on the group pieces. I will actually see his new solo for the first time on Monday when we have rehearsal for the ADF.

What has he said about the new piece, with the Ballet de Monte Carlo?

It just premiered last weekend. I just saw images from that piece for the first time the other night. He spoke about it being the most multi-media piece he’s ever made. The dance actually opens with a film he made with the dancers, and there are what look like a lot of projections. He worked with a composer; they worked together to create the soundscore, and I understand there’s a sound installation score. Though I’m not sure of the technical specifics, I believe there are moving microphones in the system.

The title?

“7 To 8 And”

By now, it's pretty safe to say that Shen Wei's work has divided the dance world. Few people are indifferent to his works; there’s no shortage of strong responses to it; many positive, some negative.
Over ten years, I’m thinking you've probably had an "eye of the storm" vantage point on how his work has been received. I’m wondering how you all have experienced those differences of opinion, from the inside—and what you do with that experience.

I would say with any choreographer who’s making work, there are people who love it and hate it. There’s all kind of work out there, and different tastes. At the end of the day, I see a lot dance here in New York, and I say “I can’t stand this or that.” But there’s something to be said for the fact that people are putting their work out there. I kind of always remind myself of that, even when I see something that really wasn’t my thing, but people in the audience thoroughly loved it. At the end of the day, they’re to be commended for putting something out there.

[The video to the right is from Shen Wei's Re- Part III, which premiered at last year's ADF.]

In terms of people’s reactions to Shen Wei’s work, I’ve heard the gamut of responses from the lovers and the haters. I guess that’s the balance that keeps the world going round. For people that Shen Wei’s work is really not their thing, maybe that’s inspiration for them to make the work that they want to be coming out with.

I think there have always been the lovers and haters, from the get-go. I don’t think there was some kind of honeymoon period when everyone was just gaga about the company, and then it shifted. There’s always been—you can probably find as many reviews and blog entries out there from people who weren’t into it as people who were.

Not to mention that dependable group, the clueless, who just scratch their heads and say, I don’t get it.

Sure. And if we’re out somewhere and there’s a review, someone will read it and tell the rest of us what it’s about. But whether it’s a negative review or not, it’s not going to affect what you set out to do that afternoon or evening for a performance. You know what your job needs to be.
In L.A. in April we had a review that wasn’t so hot in terms of what they thought of the program.
But the reaction from the audience was great. We had three sold-out shows and standing ovations. And a terrible review in the newspaper. So it’s like—it is what it is.

I think we’d rather have that situation (laughs) than a super review and an audience that just wasn’t having it and walking out of the theater the moment the curtain is down.
As performers, we’ll take a bad review and a wonderful audience any day of the week, rather than vice versa.

There have always been lovers and haters.
And having been with the company for a long time, I know there are lot of politics that go on in the dance world. I think that some of the loving and the hating of the company is tied to the politics, more so than to the work. It’s that thing: “Can you separate the art from the artist? Can you separate the art from the politics?” I don’t know if it is for a lot of people, but for some those two are very interwoven and not to be separated. And then it becomes hard to view something.

What’s on the horizon for the company?

We’re about to start a residency at the Park Avenue Armory in September. We have our own studio space for the next year. That’s wonderful news. The company will have space to offer classes to the public, which is something we’re interested in doing.
There are a lot of companies that aren’t working right now, and choreographers and companies who have lost their studio spaces. To be given the gift of space in New York for a year is incredible. It kind of changes our landscape in terms of our ability to operate for the next year at least.


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