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Eighty-two years is an impressive span of longevity for a person but even more so for an artistic organization. The American Dance Festival kicked off its 82nd year last night at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) with both a uniquely contrasting program by Shen Wei Dance Arts and, as has become tradition, the recognition and dedication of the new season to a significant artist who has demonstrated an enduring and profound influence on modern dance. This year the selection for that honoree turned locally as the 2015 season was dedicated to Charles "Chuck" Davis.
Davis, founder of the African American Dance Ensemble as well as DanceAfrica, has been a leader not only in the movement to shine a light on the integrity and greatness of African dance cultures, but has taken this passion deep into communities all over the world. The presentation by Jodee Nimerichter, Executive Director of ADF, showed the love and respect the dance world has for this great artist. Once the presentation was over, we heard some chanting and drums from behind the curtains and the audience erupted knowing what was to come. Davis and his ensemble came out for a brief, energetic dance, but best of all was Davis' beautifully intoned, mellifluous sermon on the importance of dance, expressing yourself, and coming together as a community. It might sound a bit hokey, but the audience loved it.
Shen Wei Dance Arts is a dance company which has exemplified the goals and purpose of the ADF from its very inception. Formed in 2000, at least half of its current dancers attended ADF and are still affiliated in some capacity. Great teaching and example leads to more great artists who in turn go back to impart their gifts to students, and the circle of artistic transference goes on.
Shen Wei is an extraordinary, multi-disciplined artist whose lengthy list of commissions includes portions of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics as well as affiliations with Lincoln Center and numerous festivals around the globe. The two works presented on this program were quite unique in that they were, at the same time, as contrasting as you can get while also similar in some respects.
Untitled No. 12 - 2 is a re-envisioning of Untitled No. 12 – 1, a work tailored for the Miami Dade College Museum of Art + Design. In addition to Wei's prodigious talent as choreographer, this work shows off Shen Wei's other major talent as visual artist and set designer. It begins with eleven of Wei's paintings from his series Black, White and Gray, splashed across the entire width of the very large DPAC stage. Like the name says, there is no color in any of them and they are all quite breathtaking in technique, emotion and originality. We then see a line of dancers emerging from stage left. To say they are moving slowly would be a giant understatement. Glacially, nearly imperceptibly would be more accurate. They move across the stage in that manner with one or two at a time releasing from the slow-as-a-tortoise movement to add some increased motion – only to fall back in line. The entire work continues as some variation of this, a study in painfully slow flow reminiscent of Tai Chi and especially conducive to a pairing with Wei's paintings. The only music is a steady far-away rhythmic beat about every two seconds.
From a study of the sublime difficulty of humans moving as slow as seemingly possible, Wei, in the next work, seems to go to the other end of the spectrum with Map. Set to sections from The Desert Music, generally considered one of Steve Reich's greatest compositions, this is (mostly) a frenetic, wildly pulsating and energetic dance that at many times has you not believing your own eyes that humans can move in such ways. Again Wei was the triple threat here as originator of the concept, choreographer and set designer. Part of that design was five very large balloons (two of them cubes) suspended high above the front of the stage. Written on those, as well as what appeared to be a projection of a blackboard at the rear of the stage, was a combination of maps/directions and indecipherable math formulas.
Wei's choreography was a perfect match for Reich's incessant, insistent score. A description in the program notes is as perfect as you can get: "…Shen Wei investigates the myriad possibilities of rotation in the joints; the varying aspects of bouncing, rebounding and suspension…" It was indeed a marvel of transcending human limitations as hips, knees, shoulders, and even ankles, moved in ways that not only were never seen by these eyes, but somehow the remarkable athleticism of the dancers made it seem normal and inevitable.
Despite the great difference in tone between the two works presented, there was a similarity of which all I can do is speculate what it meant. During Map there was an amazing moment where a group of dancers sort of oozed off stage like an amoeba and some had their legs on the others. I then realized that other than that brief exchange, not once did any of the dancers touch each other, or for that matter, even acknowledge another's existence. Is this basic to Wei's style? Is it a Philosophy 101 statement that ultimately we are all alone, even surrounded by a sea of humanity? Is it a test of Wei's skill that he can forego the interaction of dancers and still get thrilling, thought-provoking results? This is just more of the mystery and conundrum of great artistic creation. Go see and ponder this for yourself.
This performance repeats Friday and Saturday nights. See the sidebar for more information.