The streets of Siena, Italy, can get pretty crowded in the summer. In the high season, visitors to the Tuscany hill town sometimes outnumber the locals. It’s not surprising, then, that when the Straight reaches Wen Wei Wang there for an interview via WhatsApp, the Vancouver-based choreographer describes the scene as “crazy”.
As Wang speaks, Siena is gearing up for the Palio di Provenzano. A tradition dating back almost four centuries, the annual horse race is a massive draw for tourists. It’s not, however, what has brought Wang to Siena. He’s there for Ballo Pubblico, the festival hosted by Siena’s Compagnia ADARTE. When we catch up with him, Wang is fresh from the world premiere of Barocco Rave, a dance work he created in collaboration with ADARTE’s Francesca Lettieri.
“It went really well,” he says. “It’s an outdoor festival in a fortress [Fortezza di Poggio Imperiale] at the top of a hill, really old; a thousand years old, really beautiful. They build a stage and have a week or two-week festival including theatre, music, and dance.”
Barocco Rave comprises two parts, with the first, BEAT ARMONICO, created by Lettieri and the second, RE | BUILD | US, showcasing Wang’s own choreography.
“Francesca’s part opens the piece,” Wang says. “It’s about 27 minutes. And then I start. My piece is about 30 minutes. In total, it’s about a 50-minute-long piece. The only connection is, we both use barocco [baroque] music, and we use the same four dancers.”
Those dancers are Ariana Barr, Alexis Fletcher, Adrian de Leeuw, and Matthew Wylie. Fletcher is an independent freelancer and 14-year veteran of Ballet BC; the other three are members of Ballet Edmonton, of which Wang is artistic director.
“The pieces are quite different, but somehow we tied them together,” Wang says. “It looks like one piece from the first part and into the second part. But they’re quite different. She uses all barocco music, because this has come from her background, her culture.”
Wang worked with sound designer Sammy Chieng to transform selections of baroque compositions into something altogether more modern by incorporating beats and other contemporary elements.
Wang met Lettieri at the Tel Aviv Dance Festival in 2017. The two were introduced by the Dance Centre’s executive director, Mirna Zagar, who suggested they collaborate. Wang quickly became a fan of his Italian counterpart’s artistic vision, which draws inspiration from beyond her dance training.
“I really like Francesca, because she graduated from university with a law degree,” Wang says. “And she has another one in human rights. So her work is really political and really intelligent because of her background. She has not just come from dance work, you know. She has this huge educational background, so she’s really intelligent. That’s what pulled me in.”
Barocco Rave began to take shape not long after the two choreographers met, although progress was stalled significantly by a certain global pandemic. When Wang, Lettieri, and the dancers were finally able to get together, they were working with a different set of constraints.
“Because of the timing and the budget, she only had two weeks’ rehearsal time,” Wang says. “And I only had two weeks’ rehearsal time. So, the first two weeks, she was in the studio working with our dancers and I was watching her rehearse every day. I wanted to see how she was building her work. And then from there, I started to watch her piece and then my ideas started coming—not from her piece; that was just giving me some inspiration. Then somehow the piece started working in my mind.”
According to Wang, Lettieri’s segment reflects an Old World sensibility, drawing on the baroque tradition that fuses grandeur with outsized exuberance and a level of detail that some might consider excessive. In contrast, RE | BUILD | US incorporates what the choreographer describes as “open space”.
In Siena, Wang says, he can see the roots of Lettieri’s work everywhere he looks. “When I go to see the church, when I go to the cathedral, I see the culture. Everything’s a lot. So much in there. So, in my piece, I feel like I need to leave a little bit of space.”
His work, Wang asserts is “more raw, more new, more about today’s life”, and bears the distinct imprint of the Chinese-born artist’s 30 years in Vancouver.
When he’s not on the West Coast—where his eponymous company Wen Wei Dance is based—or jetting off to international festivals, Wang spends much of his time in Alberta’s capital, where he has been the AD of Ballet Edmonton since 2018. It’s not an arrangement that leaves much downtime in the choreographer’s schedule—between now and May 2024, when Ballet Edmonton’s next season wraps up, he says he will have a total of two weeks off. Mind you, he has no complaints about being busy.
“Now you know I’m crazy,” he says with a laugh after listing all of his commitments for the next 10 months. “But I feel like this is my last kick, myself. Work hard a few more years, because I’m almost 60 years old. But I think it’s good. Better than sitting at home doing nothing.”
Retirement may be on the horizon, but until then, Wang intends to keep going as long as his energy lasts—and that is one resource that is not in short supply.
“Age changes how much we can do,” he acknowledges. “It’s different. I don’t feel I’m old, but sometimes you do know you’ve started getting old. You know, the young generations coming up, we need to support them, too. So that’s what kinda gives me that energy.”
Wang is well aware that dance is a young person’s art form. Most professional dancers retire between the ages of 35 and 40.
Choreographers can obviously keep working for considerably longer than that, but Wang takes a pragmatic view of his career’s longevity, and he is determined to make the most of it while he can.
“It’s not like you have 20 or 30 years to go,” he admits. “You know you don’t have much time, so I think it’s actually good for me to grab that last few years, to really work hard at building something. And then one day when we’re old, retired, or we’re gone, we don’t regret our lives.”
Wen Wei Dance and Compagnia ADARTE present Wen Wei Wang and Francesca Lettieri’s Barocco Rave on July 6 and 7 at the Firehall Arts Centre as part of the Dancing on the Edge festival.