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SHEN WEI DANCES EVOKE TIBET STRUGGLE, PAGAN SACRIFICE AT JOYCE

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on September 27, 2006.

Sept. 27 (Bloomberg) — The stage is thickly strewn with blue and white bits of paper arranged in a mandala-like pattern of circles within squares. Ani Choying Dolma, a Buddhist nun, kneels at its center, singing and chanting, her voice alternately powerful and haunting.

This is the hypnotic setting for Shen Wei’s “Re–,” on view at the Joyce Theater through Sunday. The dreamlike mood is shattered as four dancers rush across the space, destroying the design.

It’s the only violent moment. The rest of the action is all gentle swiveling and rolling, limbs extending softly, bodies folding back in on themselves.

The moving bodies stir up the fragments so that they travel lightly through the air before falling slowly back to the ground, like snow. Other scraps stick to the dancers’ clothes, like the debris that clung to the fugitives from the attacks on the Twin Towers.

In a lecture-demonstration at Asia Society, Shen explained that his creation of “Re–” was inspired by two visits to Tibet. It’s easy to imagine that the dancers represent the Tibetan people, whose geographic, cultural and spiritual homeland was ravaged by China in the mid-20th century. And that the people keep going, centered and calm.

Still, the viewer’s imagination has to work overtime, since the choreography isn’t convincing in itself.

The piece’s most persuasive element is the performance of Dai Jian, the single male member of the quartet and the only one who has fully mastered Shen’s concept of movement impelled by breath. This dancer is a phenomenon, embodying the Eastern idea of egoless action.

Apart from the singing, the rest of the dance leans dangerously in the direction of the inauthentic and the pretentious.

Plotless Rites

Shen’s 2003 “Rite of Spring,” set to the four-hand piano rendition of Stravinsky’s arresting 1913 score, completed the program.

The composer had narration in mind — a pagan community’s yearly sacrifice of a virgin to make the crops grow. Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, though a radical departure from classical ballet, still told the story.

Shen’s version remains adamantly abstract. It tries to make an effect solely through sharp-focused, weaving stage patterns and violent athletic movement. Gymnasts and break dancers would recognize a lot of what’s going on.

Too Pretty

The simplistic movement dulls through repetition. The work is further weakened by being overly prettified: The dancers are too lithe and fluid, balletic in their elegance.

What’s more, the idea of dancing to one’s death becomes defused when everyone’s doing it, and the force compelling the barbaric ritual is nowhere to be seen.

Born in China, the 38-year-old Shen Wei trained as a youngster for the Chinese opera and spent the latter half of the 1980s performing in this highly stylized, theatrically vivid genre.

He has described his first experience watching modern dance as an epiphany. It led him, in 1990, to become a founding member, both dancer and choreographer, of one of China’s first modern dance companies.

In the mid-1990s he emigrated to the States. By 2000 he had his own troupe, and encouraged by today’s accelerated globalization of dance, it has quickly become the next new thing.

Shen Wei Dance Arts is at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave. at 19th Street through Oct.1. Tickets: (1)(212) 242-0800. Information: http://www.joyce.org .

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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