For most ADF students, it's the stuff of dreams: An enigmatic young choreographer spots you in an audition. You work for six weeks on what's ultimately the season standout. Then he says he wants to start a company with you, in New York. The company shortly rises to the heights of modern dance, with seasons at home, performances in cities and festivals around the world.
When your choreographer creates work for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, your work is broadcast across the globe and viewed by billions of people.
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. Procopio is now an artistic associate of Shen Wei Dance Arts. She spoke to us recently from New York.
Independent Weekly: What was it about your experiences with Shen Wei at ADF in 2000 that first suggested this might be something more than a one-off?
Sara Procopio: It was kind of a magical summer. I have vivid memories of Shen Wei bringing in heavy, coffee-table visual art books to old Brodie Gym, with different images that were inspirations for him for Near the Terrace [his first work with ADF students].
That way of working felt really familiar, to my way of working with colleagues at Hollins [University]: working with visual images, and being asked to improvise and create my own phrases that friends would shape and direct. 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.
What do you feel Shen Wei has given the dance world in 10 years' time?
His work has a different voice 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, 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 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.
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. What happens to you as an artist when he comes back later and makes a significant change in it?
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 eight-person version, he wanted to utilize more of the company, to have more bodies in place.
When we went back to rehearse 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." He decided to change the paths.
For me that was a big shift, because my muscle memory is so deep. 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. [ ... ] 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.