by Byron Woods
As mentioned in our previous Critical Remix, Shen Wei regularly revises earlier works. Less regularly, however, does he change their titles while keeping much of their content the same.
That gives us pause about the putative world premiere of COLLECTIVE MEASURES. By my reckoning, at least half of its contents were viewed, more or less verbatim, in a lengthier world premiere at the 2011 ADF called Limited States.
Shen references the work in the playbill. No doubt he should. Sequences in which dyads made exaggerated fingertip selections while facing each other; a seven-minute game of zone transversing and adjustments measured out in a spotlit square; projected footage, above the stage, in which three shifting trios inflict pain and comfort gestures on a dancer in the middle; a contact section suggesting theatrical improv machine-building games; weightless women lifts and a sinuous centipedal sequence—all of these echoed the work we saw two years ago.
It is less clear, however, if the reappearances of these themes here represent refinements of earlier work, or mere reiteration.
Beginning with sequences referencing early motion-picture motion studies of the human form, Limited States focused largely on measurements of bodies in increasingly close proximity to one another. Among its varied, fascinating technological views of the human form (generated by video artists at New York’s Fake Love), Shen seemed to be asking how large groups in finite space limit the autonomy and range of individual expression. When inquiring into the rules that might permit compact co-existence in a crowded cube, the choreographer nearly seemed in pursuit of one particularly alarming endgame that global overcrowding may well present.
Collective Measures appears to add little to that inquiry. In fact, it may well be subtracting something from it.
Parts of the work represent a retreat into the human sculpture garden we’ve seen previously, in works including 2004’s Connect Transfer. Comparisons with Merce Cunningham seem inevitable here, but while both have mapped out impressive landscapes in the realm of the possible involving human movement and placement in space, Shen’s work still seems by far the colder of the two.
We were taken with Cecily Campbell’s and Alex Speedie’s mid-work solos, both brisk, daunting, crisp and lyrical excavations of personal space. Though Cynthia Koppe and Janice Lancaster Larsen briefly threaded through them, certain energetic group sequences still seemed to plateau, overlong and without a developing point.
Though brief gesture quotes from a number of Shen’s previous works are identifiable here, it’s not clear whether their presence suggests a grand integration, or a lack of other options.
At the time, Connect Transfer clearly suggested a gesamtkuntswerk fusion of all we had seen up to then in Shen’s work. By comparison, I’m afraid that Collective Measures suggests decidedly Limited progress.