Choreographer and painter Shen Wei has spent more than two decades living in China, and more than two decades in New York City. He says he now feels like he’s reached a kind of full integration of East and West.
That’s especially clear in the strange, poetically beautiful pieces Folding and Rite of Spring that are coming here for the Vancouver International Dance Festival. Both blend Asian and North American styles into a singular language—one distinctive enough that the Boston Globe once called his creations “so strikingly original they defy categorization”.
“It’s amazing to think that until 20 years ago, Chinese culture was a closed culture,” Shen marvels over the phone from Paris, where he sporadically takes a creative hiatus to visit museums, watch films, rest, create, and find inspiration. “Now, over the next 20 years, we’re kind of all integrated into one world.
“Learning the differences between East and West has helped me open new ways to see,” he adds. “I can really see the good sides of both cultures and really deeply digest them. I don’t just live in both places but I’m also passionate about both cultures as well.”
Shen was born in 1968 in Hunan, during the Cultural Revolution, to a father who was a Chinese opera director and calligrapher and a mother who was a theatre producer. He started studying classical Chinese opera at nine, as well as traditional painting and calligraphy. With the opening of China to western styles, he began training in modern dance in Guangzhou in 1989, then moved to New York in 1995 to pursue it further, eventually launching his own company, Shen Wei Dance Arts.
His work has now toured the world, most interestingly circling back to China on a regular basis. He choreographed part of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony, and Folding, one of the pieces coming here, began as a creation for the company he once performed for, Guangdong Modern Dance Company.
In Folding, enigmatic figures in bizarre beehive-shaped headpieces float around the stage in long red and black skirts to the hypnotic sounds of Tibetan chanting and John Tavener’s haunting score. Shen’s own painting, inspired by an 18th-century Chinese watercolour, serves as the backdrop.
The choreographer tells the Straight he was inspired by ancient Chinese philosophy when he was creating the piece. “I was trying to make something timeless and philosophical for the Chinese dance company,” says Shen, who, as he does with most of his pieces, designed the costumes, makeup, and sets for Folding. “It’s not about a real 21st-century person, more about a creature of human life—that’s why the whole thing looks so surreal. I’m talking about the big picture, the meaning of life.”
Rite, on the other hand, is an abstract exploration of Igor Stravinsky’s piece, danced to Fazil Say’s four-handed piano version, and stripped down to black, white, and grey for costumes and sets. But even here you can see the synthesis of East and West, with bodies swirling with calligraphic grace. “I was looking to express a new way of moving,” Shen says, “with movement from both eastern and western culture.”
In both pieces, Shen’s painterly eye heightens the worlds he creates as he sculpts the space. “As a visual artist, you’re always sharper as a choreographer; you see things more exactly, you see the line or the space,” he explains.
What Shen creates with his dazzling on-stage worlds may not just draw on eastern and western art forms, but help to build bridges between continents.
“My generation has had the ability to travel in both cultures and maybe that can lead to a new future,” he says optimistically, before retiring to his self-imposed Parisian solitude again. “Maybe in the world of the future we can accept each other—even when we have a different way of seeing beauty.”
The Vancouver International Dance Festival presents Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Vancouver Playhouse next Friday and Saturday (March 2 and 3).