In Durham, especially among American Dance Festival regulars, it was no surprise that Zhang Yimou, the great Chinese filmmaker who would be directing them, chose 40-year-old dancer Shen Wei to choreograph sections of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies last year.
We knew he was Olympic quality. Zhang must have recognized a kindred spirit: Both artists excel at creating intimate scenes in expansive territories; and at using color, line, space, light and sound as essential components of the action, whether dance or story. And now, Shen Wei, like Zhang Yimou, is also known for his skill in marshalling casts of thousands.
Shen Wei had been wowing us at ADF before he even had a dance company of his own. Here in North Carolina, we've been smitten since the moment at the 2000 festival when Shen Wei released Near the Terrace, to glide like a slow comet across our mental sky. We knew we were seeing something very special. Near the Terrace was created out of a new paradigm in contemporary dance, by someone with a powerful vision, and the relentlessness and grace to extract that vision from human bodies in motion.
For that first commission from ADF, Shen Wei set his vision on a handful of students, as part of the International Choreographers Commissioning Program. He began his company that year and has returned annually to ADF. But on Aug. 8, 2008 (that would be 08/08/08), Shen Wei became the best-known choreographer in the world as he electrified the Beijing National Stadium (the Bird's Nest) and television screens around the globe with his gorgeous kinetic designs and tableaux. His Connect Transfer (commissioned by ADF; premiered there in 2004) was transformed for the occasion; instead of a nonrepresentational welter of colors, a classical Chinese landscape was painted by the dancers with their bodies on a vast canvas. Other segments included 2,008 synchronized performers and madly beautiful effects of light and color. The thousands of bodies played out Shen Wei's ever-present concerns with energy flow, momentum and balance in the guise of traditionally-inspired Chinese celebratory performance at a scale suited to the renewed power of China. His 15 minutes of fame on that are nearly up, but here in Durham, Shen Wei's fame-time is set on repeat.
This weekend, Shen Wei Dance Arts company will wrap up a two-week residency at Duke University with two performances in Reynolds Theater. The company will perform Re- (Part One), another ADF commission, which premiered in that hall in 2006 and has subsequently been expanded; and it will perform at least some of Re- (Part 2)—on which the company has been working during the residency—and possibly even fragments of Re- (Part 3).
This complex work continues to grow out of Shen Wei's travels in Asia after nearly 15 years living in the U.S. The first part concerns Tibet; Part 2, Ankor Wat in Cambodia; and Part 3 will consider China's ancient Silk Road. The completed Re- Triptych will premiere at ADF in June.
The company's presence in Durham is part of an extraordinary push on the part of Duke University to put the arts back into liberal arts education. Much of this work is being spearheaded by Duke Performances, directed by Aaron Greenwald. In addition to putting together marvelously ambitious rosters of performance events, Greenwald brings artists to work with various departments, and sometimes, even commissions new works.
This academic year, Duke Performances has four dance artists in residence, all standouts in the field for various reasons. This is a big investment: The Shen Wei Dance Arts residency alone is costing the university more than $100,000—nearly $150,000 if you count the costs of mounting the performances (though some of that money will be recouped by ticket sales). The money is coming from the office of Scott Lindroth, vice-provost for the arts, and is part of support received from the Duke Endowment to fund a visiting artist residency program. "I am continually seeking opportunities not only to develop special arts events on campus, but also to enhance the role the arts play in the intellectual life on campus," Lindroth says, adding that Duke's strategic plan "emphasizes experiential learning, and the arts offer the most compelling model for experiential learning. ... Courses in the arts have always emphasized practical skills as well as conceptual and critical thinking."
Keval Kaur Khalsa is the director of Duke's dance program. "This two-week residency with Shen Wei and company is very special, marking the first formal collaboration between several entities at Duke—the dance program, the vice provost for the arts and Duke Performances with the American Dance Festival."
Everyone benefits, Khalsa says. "The artist [benefits] from dedicated, funded rehearsal time to create and shape new work and communicate their vision through performances, lecture demonstrations, formal and informal gatherings and interviews. Dance students get a direct experience of the inner workings of a professional company as they observe rehearsals, take company class, interview the dancers and learn from workshops in technique and choreography." She could have added that the larger community outside campus benefits, too, under Duke's policy of opening many of the residency activities to the public.
Visiting artist programs at universities are hardly new, but Duke is trying to do something a little different. It has had Shen Wei and his dancers running around doing lots of things that benefit the university, but it is also giving them the greatest gift: Time. "Most importantly," says Greenwald, "they are developing their work" while at Duke.
"A residency like this is so important," Shen Wei told me after the first day of rehearsal on Jan. 14. Re- (Part 2) had originally been set on Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (that included former Carolina Ballet dancer Christopher Rudd), and there was a lot to accomplish before the concert date. After four hours, and repeated gentle exhortations by Shen Wei to "find a flow; follow the wind of energy; be a natural body; flow like leaves in water; find the momentum of flow," one dance phrase had been fully worked out on the present company.
Shen Wei is emphatic in his appreciation for his hosts. "I'm so happy Aaron and Duke University [have given] us this opportunity. Without this kind of support nothing happens in the arts." Art is hard, and the business of art can make it harder. Even for an ADF-nurtured, Guggenheim Grant-winning, MacArthur genius award-receiving, Kennedy Center-resident, internationally renowned choreographer, it can be difficult to get any work done.
When asked about this, Shen Wei grimaces. "I have no holidays. In addition to making work and rehearsing, I have to do all the administration and money things." Duke is providing Shen Wei's company with some of the sustenance it needs: two weeks in a quiet studio with lodging, food and paychecks laid on.
Shen Wei also feels his educational responsibilities. "My focus is making new work," he says, but "we like doing the education also." Speaking with great emphasis, Shen Wei, who became a U.S. citizen in 2006 ("I just voted [in] my first election!"), says, "We don't have enough support in this country for the young people to learn cultural arts. Without this we don't have a future."
Says Khalsa, "The university has played a crucial role in the development of modern dance in this country. The American Dance Festival has also played a key role in developing and nurturing some of our great dance choreographers. Our vision in the Duke dance program is that, working together with ADF, Duke University will become an internationally known incubator and vital center of choreographic creation and innovation."
If the university truly is beginning to support the arts in the way it does the sciences, there is no doubt that Duke/ ADF/ Durham will form a vital nexus for nurturing new dance arts and lacing them into all the surrounding fields of inquiry. "An artist such as Shen Wei transforms the rich poetic, political, and spiritual ideas underlying Chinese culture into beautiful works of choreography," says Lindroth. But the transformation goes both ways. Shen Wei abstracts ideas and experiences into dances—and the dances lead back to the sources. That eternal return helps us to revolve our thoughts in our freewheeling search for wisdom.
Shen Wei's work is abstract, some of the purest abstract dance art being made today. At his best, he engages viewers on spiritual, intellectual and emotional levels, and the result is a kind of aesthetic bliss. From the beginning, Shen Wei's dances have made me think of Mark Rothko paintings. Not from any formal or even conceptual similarity, but in the way they subsume you into themselves, and imbue you with an understanding of their abstract concepts without saying a word. Indeed, words can be only guides and prods to understanding deep abstraction. Paintings—and bodies—show it better.
Duke Performances presents Shen Wei Dance Arts in Reynolds Theater Jan. 23-24 at 8 p.m. There will be post-performance discussions both nights. See dukeperformances.duke.edu for more information.