Posts Tagged ‘Abstract expressionism’

Shen Wei at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

By Rachel Straus

Shen Wei makes dances that read like landscape paintings. So it made perfect sense when Shen Wei Dance Arts installed itself for two nights (June 6 and 13) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Chinese-born choreographer designs costumes and paints backdrops that fuse with his serene movement style. But rather than making a backdrop for three dances (seen June 13), Shen Wei used a space where marble and bronze statues dwell: the Charles Engelhard Court of the American Wing. It’s a theatrical setting bar none. To live and recorded music for a sold-out crowd, Shen Wei’s 17 dancers initially possessed statue-like stillness. And like the statues in the Engelhard Court, the dancers were mostly naked.

The event marked the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first foray into hosting a site specific performance. Earlier this year Shen Wei toured the museum, looking for the ideal space to present his choreography, which is influenced by Chinese opera (of which he trained for a decade), calligraphy, and modern dance (of which he performed in his native China). The fact that Shen Wei chose the American wing may say something about his chosen affiliations. In 2000, Shen Wei adopted the U.S. as his home and incorporated ideas from Abstract expressionism, particularly the notion that art need not be representational.

At the Engelhard Court’s western end, a floor to ceiling sheet of glass creates the impression that Central Park is part of the space. The glass roof, where the setting sun’s rays passed through, gave Shen Wei’s evening an added sense of natural beauty. At the court’s northern end, the facade of a neo-classical bank (once located on Wall Street) was used as an entranceway for the dancers. When a naked Joan Wadopian exited via the façade’s grand staircase, she trailed a red swath of fabric. This vision reminded me of a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

The most compelling work of the evening, which included the aforesaid exit, was Shen Wei’s restaging of “Near the Terrace.” The 2000 work to Arvo Pärt’s famously sacred, minimalist compositions, “fur Alina” and “Spiegel Im Spiegel,” began with the dancers arranged among the statues like statuary. Standing, sitting, and reclining, they did not move for a long time. Because their bodies and faces were coated in white powder, they resembled Butoh practitioners, renowned for their slow, hyper-controlled motions. Shen Wei’s dancers mesmerized, reminding this reviewer of sleepwalkers. Their faces expressed intense focus. They looked like they were performing a mysterious rite. They became statues that had come to life.

Pianist Avner Arad and violinist Aaron Boyd performed Pärt’s solemn music behind two immense wrestlers. The delicacy of their playing stood in stark contrast to the marble figures in the act of pummeling each other.

Whether intentional or not there were other moments of absurdity. At the near end of “Terrace,” a male dancer donned an enormous red crepe hat. When the colorfully clad man marched forward, it was funny—and a welcome change in a dance where seriousness of intent and slowness of walk reigned.

Two new works, “Transition” and “Internal External #1,” incorporated the screeching electronic sounds made by Daniel Burke. In “Transition” Burke’s music offered a sense of what it would be like to be inside a cyclone. Not so nice. Meanwhile Hunter Carter and Wadopian climbed a ramp and lowered themselves into black paint. The dancers emerged like huge birds that had fallen into an oil slick. Then they executed mechanized movements as though they were robots on an assembly line. Modernity can be killing, this dance seemed to say.

In “Internal External #1” 14 dancers’ sharp and smooth, slow and fast, balancing and falling, solo and group movements were juxtaposed. Burke’s repetitive clanging soundscape evoked an industrial hell. But at the end, there was bird chirping. The company, many of who are new, looked like they could have used more rehearsals; they occasionally looked unsure of themselves.

At these times, my eyes wandered across the crowd. The gala guests and special invitees sat on the first level while the rest stood, watching from the second and third-floor galleries above. This wasn’t just a dance lover’s crowd. What did they make of this evening? My hope is that they saw Shen Wei as a landscape choreographer, an artist whose work is wholly fitting for a museum.