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Shen Wei Dance Arts was formed at the Americal Dance Festival in 2000, and the ADF has continued to be highly supportive of Shen Wei and the company ever since. This year the company premiered another work commissioned by the ADF, one that indicates the artist has adjusted direction. While Limited States retains some of his most recognizable stage actions, the piece over-all seems very trendy, very New York-ish: cold, edgy, overcrowded, backed by flashing oversized imagery, and riddled with industrial sound.
The work, presented in the Durham Performing Arts Center opens silently, as dancers clad only in flesh-toned briefs assemble themselves onstage, backs to us. Genital areas effectively erased, these are not bodies so much as sculptures, marble in motion (Shen Wei recently presented a dance among the marbles in the Metropolitan Museum sculpture court). Above their heads, video projection shows us an image of a dancer, larger than life, facing us. Behind the first image dances another, still larger, but more remote. Video projections large and small are used throughout Limited States, along with shadows created by the footlights. Sometimes dancer, projection and shadow are used together with piercing philosophical effect; sometimes they merely engender vertigo.
Section I, "Dimensions," starts off with a lovely snatch of Rossini and the merest tease of dancing. But then the dancers line up, very close together, and cycle through a long, opaque sequence in which one dancer from the line sprawls awkwardly on a truncated section of steps, then takes a container from two others who lift and tote. Dancer one leaves; the whole repeats — many times. The sound for this is an edited tape of NOAA weather reports from around the country. The relentless loop of unneeded information comes at the audience at an unnecessarily high volume. Like the oversized video, it forces your attention away from the live people. In me this creates a sense of conflict and anxiety, and, coupled with the panicky feeling caused by the crowded line and the highlighted-but-uninformative action, that anxiety made this a profoundly uncomfortable experience.
That this is probably what Shen Wei intended did not make it any easier for me to open myself to the rest of the work. But he has cannily inserted a brief segment of spaciousness, sensuality and color following the bleak "Dimensions:" a single dancer suddenly smears herself with a handful of bright blue. It is a wonderful moment, and the sequence that follows is Shen Wei's most intriguing use yet of dance-painting. Following this Sara Procopio, still powerful and eloquent in her 11th year with the company, dances "0-11." The movement is pure elegant classic Shen Wei; the sound is by Illusion of Safety. "Crossing Now Bridges" is not too bad as industrial noise goes, but it does include one painful moment of extremely loud feedback sound. Like the lights turned to face the audience, this kind of noise is at best aggressive, hostile, and in the worst cases you could call it sadistic. This moment does not reach those depths, but you might want to be prepared to cover your ears.
Section III, "Internal External #2" is the most satisfying, in terms of vine-like movements and beautiful lines. The dancers create wonderful sculptures that build and dissolve and re-establish themselves elsewhere on stage. The videos are playing again, but they are not showing exactly the same action as the live dancers — they are not mirrors, but seem like a manifestation of a slight shift in the time-space continuum. That is a demanding concept, and this is a demanding dance. Whether or not you like it, it will give you plenty to think about, if you can maintain your interest.
Limited States repeats June 15 and 16. See the sidebar for details.