Shen Wei Dance Arts

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

28/02/2008 - 02/03/2008

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

Rite of Spring / Folding

Shen Wei Dance Arts burst onto the international scene at the beginning of the decade, proclaimed as a fresh, new tour de force in dance today. Shen Wei’s startling choreography is epic in scale, rousing all the senses at once and potently theatrical.

The influences that have shaped Shen Wei as a choreographer, painter and designer are channelled into a sensibility that has produced absorbing results. His landmark double bill – Rite of Spring and Folding – demonstrates the extraordinary range of genius that has captivated audiences worldwide.

Rite of Spring is a dynamic piece of engrossing and precise movement visually amplifying Stravinsky’s powerful score. Taking its cues from Chinese opera, Western classical ballet and modern dance, the choreography tests the technical and physical limits of the dancers. They flow across the intricate floor painting by Shen Wei.

In Folding the eye-catching costumes of flowing skirts, white body make-up and cone-shaped head dresses call to mind creatures that are simultaneously ancient and futuristic, religious and fantastical. Folding is a measured and mysterious work, set to the sounds of Tibetan chanting and a haunting score by John Tavener.

Chinese-born Shen Wei employs a holistic approach, in masterly control of every detail of his vision, immersing you in a totally sublime world.

Choreography and design Shen Wei
Photo credit Zhen Qian 

"Poetic care… remarkable mastery" – The Geneva Tribune

"The dancing is brilliant, and the patterns are powerfully compelling." – New York Times

More Details

1hr 40 mins, incl. interval

Urban angst and self-contained beauty

Review by Ann Hunt 14th Mar 2008

Shen Wei is a highly regarded choreographer, dancer, painter and designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Shen Wei Dance Arts. This programme arrives heralded from overseas tours and comprises two works, both of which he choreographed and designed.

The first is Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s music of the same name is brilliantly played by Fazil Say – sadly a recorded version only. Eleven dancers costumed in shades of ash, charcoal and teal blue, their faces impassive dance with immense control and display great speed and skill. They scuttle, spiral, rise and fall. Their commitment to the ensemble is faultless. At times the movement and atmosphere is ritualistic. At others, almost dehumanised. 

Shen Wei is recorded as saying that he derives much of his inspiration from nature. Yet this work appears to portray the claustrophobia of overcrowded urban existence. It is tense, with a feeling of being on the brink of something disastrous.

There are some stunning sequences, in particular a solo where the remaining dancers form lines on either side that pulsate in and out, like oppressive walls. But in spite of these and the intensity and brilliance of the dancing, the work fails to fully satisfy. Or perhaps we have simply had a surfeit recently of urban-angst. 

The second is the intriguing Folding. It is danced to Tibetan Mahakala Buddhist chants and music by John Tavener. The exquisite hand-painted backdrop is a rendition of an 18th century Chinese watercolour by Ba Da San Ren.

Butoh-esque dancers, their bodies painted ghostly white, wearing long crimson trailing skirts, enter with short, fast steps that make them appear as if on wheels. Surreal, alien beings, perhaps from some forgotten Atlantis, they fascinate us, even though we are not in any way emotionally engaged by them. 

This extremely beautiful dance work appears devoid of any meaning other than its own beauty. The opening night audience gave them a rousing ovation.


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Not convinced

Review by Deirdre Tarrant 12th Mar 2008

An absolutely positively polarising and perfect Festival opener for curator Lissa Twomey’s dance offerings at the International Arts Festival.

Chinese born and much acclaimed, Shen Wei has had much written about his personal history and the beginnings of his new life in America. His creative talents are listed as a painter, choreographer, designer and dancer and this was an evening that drew on all these realms of expression in the two works shown.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has been an inspiration for many choreographers and we recently saw Xavier de Frutos’ swirling, white, inexorable world in his interpretation in Milagros, made on the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Shen Wei takes a measured view and sets his dancers on a grid with finely detailed, minute and explicit responses to almost every note and every nuance of a four hand piano score played by Fazil Say. Would that the music had been live!

The tension both within the dancers and between the dancers delivered a constrained, controlled and restricted physical interpretation in a choreography that responded to the detail of the score and the precision of the music rather than to any emotive response to this music. A superb company of dancers found specifics in the impetus, the weight and directional change of the body and formed and reformed in groupings that swelled with the complexity of the music.

Allotted places, relentless abstraction and inscrutable faces forced all our sensory response to be from their bodies, from the relationship between the positioning of each dancer within a grid and from their individual and often minimalist movement information.

Personally, I was not convinced and had a real sense of déjà vu through-out most of this work. I really wanted the dancers (or just one of them?) to burst from the reins and the boundaries and find freedom – from what?? I don’t know! 

The second work, Folding, again drew on the gliding walk/run reminiscent of Georgian dancers and on simple precise movement but this time the choreographic interest was stunning and lay in the folding – of flesh and fabric. The poster came alive, very slowly, and an elemental world was created.

Bound bodies, cone shaped heads, heavy pleats and folds of differing red fabric flowed from each figure and added dimensions to both shape and texture. Mediaeval gowns, bodies lifting from the earth, androgynous figures yet hypnotically beautiful and theatrically superb. The dance audience, including myself, waited for ‘movement’ – it never came in one way and it was totally there in another!

Gradually, red gave way to black and back to red, the upright found dimensions and angles and figures carved spatial curves as they floated across a white floor. Seemingly under water or in an underworld conjured by the huge painting by Shen Wei that formed the backdrop and with clever use of stage perspectives we were in another place for a short time with a sense of suspended sensibilities and yet totally alive.

The curtain calls were interminable but a small irritation in an evening that truly achieved what dance should do and took us into territory we did not even know we needed to visit but will not easily forget.  


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Dense rich dance and narratives

Review by Dr Mark James Hamilton 02nd Mar 2008

An intricate crowd of grey figures peoples Rite of Spring. Their sped up walks and looping phrases warp time. I watched their movement motifs’ synchronise with the musical phrases. This happened better for some dancers than others. In total, the piece left me in a reverie of vague circling thoughts, rather like the dancers twirling before me. It was like watching pedestrians. The dance was dense and rich, but ultimately muddled and ignoble.

By contrast, Folding aims for the zeniths, elevating all – dancers, audience, and perhaps humanity itself. Alien beings with sallow flesh and elongated heads glide and wade about an ethereal realm. The precision of their gestures is elegantly framed by eerie lighting, bizarre costuming and a sonorous score of gongs, bells and drones. Like a pretentious confectionary, Folding moves daringly near excess.

Shen Wei’s work brings Asia-centric dramatic movement into the trans-Atlantic contemporary dance world – a place where dancers’ still crave weightless fluidity. Yes, they may call themselves ‘modern’, but ballet is buried in their core and they long to lessen the density of their bodies. Wei’s choreography needs the extensive technique that these highly controlled dancers know well, but his elegant movements realise their fullest potential when shot through with dynamism. I saw how some dancers’ moments of crisp attack or reckless release marked them from their peers, while others were competent but anonymous. They were leaves on a listless wind.

Pure movement in customary dance transfixes me, but it often flops in new dance works such as Shen Wei’s. Music carries us easily beyond the daily plane: it’s hard for human movement do the same. Contemporary dancers flounder in a conundrum when asked to perform something ‘abstract’: how to give action feeling and presence without creating in the audience the feeling of watching an indecipherable dumb show. 

This said, Folding is embedded with rich narratives. The rumbling of Gyoto monks and rich red robes conjured the sangha before me. The black-clad couples’ convolutions evoked the life of those caught in samsara.  One woman hung upside down, from her male partner’s waist. They vividly embodied the tantric couplings seen on tanka. The red figures ultimately ascend hidden stairs into a void. The bustling black figures repeatedly try to follow but like flotsam caught in an eddy they can’t find the vital current. Did I see Communist China excluded from Tibet’s spirituality?

I sometimes balk at stark new dance. Rite of Spring needed theatre – its drab costume leant little to the cool work. Poverty of means, however, might enrich Folding. The black wraps made clever illusions, but they were a cumbersome burden too. The bold spotlights were crude, but blue-washed luminescent floor and the maroon sidelights made exquisite pictures. I’d like to see the dancers’ intriguing motion without its big production cladding. I’d like to see their uniforms off and their difference restored. I am sure it would show even more the excellence of some of these performers.


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Taking the world of dance by storm

Review by Lyne Pringle 01st Mar 2008

This programme presents two very contrasting works choreographed by Chinese born, New York based Shen Wei and his company of mostly American dancers. Firstly Rite of Spring set to Stravinsky’s iconoclastic score and the second work Folding to music by John Tavener and Tibetan Buddhist Chant.

As we enter, the stage is stark and bare. Dancers begin to appear while the house lights are still up and as more of this tribe arrive, dressed in sombre grey take the stage, a hush falls over the audience. As if to cleanse the eye, in silence the dancers glide through simple walking patterns – this motif appears in the second work as well and it serves to allow an inhale before more complex movement begins or recommences, it is an effective device.

The Rite of Spring choreography is a complex, multi layered and at times florid love affair with this profound and exalted music – as if each note, and there are many in this version for four hands, has been lovingly rendered to a movement. At times each dancer has their own choreography resting on the notes and then the company works in tight unison – the result is breathtaking and worthy of more than one viewing.

Throughout the dancers are precise, their faces expressionless but the bodies speak volumes. They are stunning dancers. The choreography allows them to be individuals and to let their particular talents shine.

Shen Wei is a master choreographer and it is easy to see why he has been taking the world of dance by storm.

Folding in contrast is slow and simple in its movement exploring the action of the title: "paper, fabric, flesh – anything" as stated by the choreographer.  The design is visually sumptuous, the choreography butohesque in its tempo and in use of the body, particularly the arms, with often distorted movements.

It is also stately and graceful as the dance weaves through and folds into the soundscape – Tavener’s music a revelation. The company are in striking red skirts and cone heads as seen in the festival brochure, stripping away gender and morphing them into non-human creatures gliding in a sci-fi world. At one point a dancer appears to fall in the midst of the trademark walking patterns causing a dynamic shift in the choreography, then this movement is picked up by others and another layer emerges.

On the cyclorama a classic Chinese style painting by Shen Wei (a rendition of an 18 century watercolour by Ba Da Sen Ren) shows a large fish chasing small minnows in a pale blue ocean, the contrast between the red in the costumes is pleasing. We are absorbed into this work of art, until a dancer steps right out of the frame to glide across a platform on the orchestra pit then proceed to dangle legs upwards folding her two limbs into each other; a skilful use of foreground and background. 

Some really interesting movements occur when dancers, now in black skirts, fold into each other to create strangely beautiful creatures who lean at odd angles from each other in controlled partnering. The ocean fades to black and a cluster of red creatures bend and sway together as a soloist (Shen Wei himself) right out amongst us works in counterpoint.

Finally as the incredible lighting begins to dim the group ascend a hidden staircase and this meditative work draws to a resonant conclusion.

So far Lissa Twomey’s dance curation for the International Festival is looking good with both this programme and The Opéra National de Lyon’s The Seven Deadly Sins presenting strong dance, it is a treat to see companies of this calibre.


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