Shen Wei Dance Arts’ Folding takes you into such an engrossing dreamscape that, when the curtain falls and the houselights come up, you feel like you are waking up from some delirium.
The Chinese-American artist has fully tapped the unconscious here, conjuring a surreal world where impossible things happen in front of your eyes. The dancers wear elongated headpieces that extend their noggins into a look that falls somewhere between Coneheads and Alien Nation.
Bodies appear to float across the stage in their voluminous red silk skirts. Two torsos sprout out of a single black fabric, one stretching outward as if her body was magically expanding across the stage. And in the final moments—one whose trick is never revealed—a group of figures seem to ascend in the darkness and out of sight at the back of the stage. The trompe l’oeil caused gasps amid the mesmerized opening-night audience.
Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali would have been proud of the hallucinations Shen creates here. But what gives the imagery extra resonance are Shen’s Eastern spiritual touchstones. Unearthly Tibetan chanting and horns mix with John Tavener’s haunting orchestral score; an ancient Chinese watercolour serves as the grey-and-red backdrop, perfectly matched by the cool lighting of the dancers. All this, along with the robes and the meditative focus of the dancers, give the proceedings the reverence of a strange spiritual ritual that transcends time and space.
The choreography is powerful and sculptural, fitting in with the visual elements to create a total experience. Shen, who is also a visual artist, plays with the idea of folding, dancers walking, trancelike, across the back of the stage with their necks bent oddly skyward; one of the two-headed creatures bends backward toward the audience to give us an eerie upside-down stare.
It’s an experience that overshadows the company’s first, abstract piece on the program, The Rite of Spring. Set to Fazil Say’s frantic fourhand-piano rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece, it plays out in a frenzy of running, hopping, and turning on a grey-wash-painted grid that covers the floor. The piece is a pummelling feat for the dancers, but the American modernism feels tired and a little underwhelming—especially when compared to the high-concept second piece.
Consider The Rite of Spring a study in how diverse Shen’s work is. And as a light hors d’oeuvre before the unforgettable feast for the senses that follows it.
Tonight’s the last opportunity for you to delve into Shen’s spellbinding world; don’t miss it.