by Byron Woods
NEAR THE TERRACE
SHEN WEI DANCE ARTS
AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL
DURHAM PERFORMING ARTS CENTER
By now, we’ve come to expect choreographer Shen Wei to revise earlier works when he restages them, as the prerogative of an artistic intellect that is never still. Those changes have ranged from the subliminal tweaks we’ve witnessed in versions of Folding to the overt makeover which suggested that, in the first section of his famous trilogy, the incomplete title Re— actually stood for rewriting. (Or, possibly, redaction, when the shattered floor-length mandala which clearly symbolized the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora in the first version of that work was muddied beyond recognition in at least one iteration that followed, before its later reinstatement in recent years.)
All of which speaks to another cautionary hallmark we’ve come to associate with Mr. Shen: Second thoughts, that sometimes necessitate a third, or fourth.NEAR THE TERRACE, the choreographer’s tribute to Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux, and the first work of the first evening in the American Dance Festival’s 80th season, Jun. 13 in Durham. The world premiere of this evanescent composition (with a then-student cast including current company members Sara Procopio and Jessica Harris) announced the arrival of a formidable new choreographer in the dance world here in 2000.
Then a revised edition in 2001 dialed that announcement back, just a bit. A second section Shen added to the work that year (including a filibuster-length solo danced by the choreographer himself) ultimately gave the composition the feel of overworked dough, doubling the length—but not the charm—of his original achievement. It's been years since Terrace’s part two was jettisoned; it wasn’t on the playbill last week.
What was, however, included an enigmatic new opening to what by now has become a cherished classic in modern dance.
In my life, I never expected to see an effect similar to actor Robert Patrick’s CGI morphing in the Terminator movies staged without digital intervention before a live audience. But that is now the opening sequence of Near The Terrace. Saying the very least, it reinforces the surrealism of the work.
As Shen fuses modern, Butoh and surrealist influences here with a hint of Chinese opera, a colony of 14 other partially nude, rice-powdered women and men in pale blue body wraps proceed gracefully—and inexorably—through a world whose spare but riveting details have the strange specificity of a lucid dream.Fur Alina etches shimmering chips of sound out of the silence, the moves of these enigmatic figures follow a decidedly altered logic. (An excerpt from the music is linked below.) As they walk away, their upper torsos bend until they face us. One woman approaches another from behind, only to be borne with exquisite tenderness, slowly, sideways to the ground. During the descent, her head is cradled in the other’s hand. Other women slowly crest over the backs of men, glide calmly down their chests and legs, and curl onto the floor in the cycles of an ambiguous processional.
Altered—but never awkward—ambulation is a fundamental feature of this world. In each of these moments, dignity never forsakes these characters, even as they fall. Sustained contortions that would be regarded as deformity in our world—an elbow, for example, perpetually stretched above a dancer’s head, with the hand resting on her back—go unquestioned in this one. Exactly what achievement is it that never permits this among us?
As others characters do, earlier in the work, Sara Procopio’s character looks solemnly out into our world, toward the end. Is the stoicism in her character’s facial expression tinged with compassion, melancholy—or both? Do the inhabitants of a dream know they live a dream? Is it a greater mercy if they do, or do not?
I think Procopio’s character considers our world, before choosing the one on stage instead. Then, like the rest, she turns, gradually, inexorably, and forsakes our company; her measured pace ascending an upstage staircase, under a twilight sky. Pärt’s haunting duet for cello and piano, Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror), invokes a benediction as she does. (How haunting? Hear for yourself, below.)
I have mentioned here several reasons why I particularly miss this world, each time its performance ends. As memory reassembles it tonight as I write, I miss it once again.
It was another place. Parts of it were preferable to this one. It was so near.
It now is in eclipse.
I cannot advise you to fall in love with a world which only exists for about a half-hour, at irregular intervals, in darkened rooms, in cities far apart.
Nor can I advise you on how to keep from doing so.