Having grown up in communist China, Wen Wei Wang was 21 when he took his first plane ride. The dancer-choreographer travelled to Vancouver for Expo 86, where he performed with the Langzhou Song and Dance Company. He fell in love with the city, told himself he’d find a way back, then five years later landed a scholarship for a summer intensive dance workshop at SFU, and has been here ever since. Moving to Vancouver was a dream come true for the artist, but also a monumental challenge.
“For the first five years I was here, I didn’t speak much English,” the artistic director of Wen Wei Dance says in an interview in the Scotiabank Dance Centre lounge. “I was in a place where I was not able to communicate. Not being able to use words, I couldn’t get a sense of people, of who they were. Even in China, without talking to someone I could still get a sense of who they were, but here, with the cultural differences, that wasn’t possible. It was very difficult.”
Two days after he arrived, he was hired by Judith Marcuse; later, he joined Ballet B.C. He learned the language of his adopted country not by taking ESL classes but by auditioning, rehearsing, performing, and teaching dance. Now fluent in English, he’s translated those early days of isolation in Canada into a new work that has its Vancouver premiere this weekend.
A piece for seven dancers, including himself, 7th Sense is a departure for the animated artist. To date, he’s drawn on Chinese history to shape his sinewy, spellbinding choreography. Unbound, from 2006, had performers strut around in fetishistic foot-binding shoes, for instance. His 2009 piece Cock-Pit, meanwhile, saw dancers sporting the phallic pheasant feathers of Chinese opera. This time out, things are getting personal.
“I’ve been here 22 years, and my previous work was a lot about Chinese culture,” he says. “I feel like now I can do something about myself, about my own life experiences. Now’s the time.
“I feel like I’m ready to go back to a deep place where I was wondering how we, as human beings, can communicate and connect without words,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter where you grew up or what language you speak; we’re all able to sense what another person is like without talking, to feel it.”
The power of unspoken communication has struck Wang in other ways too. Like so many Vancouverites, Wang is a proud dog owner—something that most people in China were never allowed to be during his time there. He’s become fascinated by the way he and Yuki, his Shiba Inu, relate to each other.
“Those dogs communicate just by looking in your eyes,” he says. “They don’t speak, but they’re very passionate and show unconditional love.”
Wang says he used the gestures of canines as a starting point for the choreography of 7th Sense, which features music by Giorgio Magnanensi and Walter Zanetti. However, the movement is never that literal: you won’t see dancers pretending to pull or be pulled by a dog on a leash, for example. Although the piece is coming from a very personal place, Wang is not out to tell a tale.
“It’s abstract,” he says. “Sometimes dance is very hard because we can all make our own stories. But that’s not what’s important. When you listen to music, you never ask, ‘What it is about?’ When you go to contemporary-art galleries, you don’t ask, ‘What’s that painting about?’ You feel it. With the contemporary-art world, with dance, it’s about feeling it, feeling the energy. It’s about being open and having an experience.”