Shen Wei -- who at age 22 became a founding member of China's first modern dance company -- turns 42 this year. His New York-based company, Shen Wei Dance Arts, is celebrating its 10th anniversary season. For the expatriate choreographer, the time is undeniably ripe for midcareer (and midlife) reflection.
"It feels really long, but somehow it also feels fast," he said recently when asked about his years in the U.S. "It's time to look back at what I've done and what I should do for the future."
Shen, speaking from New York, said that his company is actually taking two years to celebrate its anniversary -- as he put it, to observe "the end of one 10 and the beginning of a new 10." But in the dance world, celebrating doesn't mean partying. If anything, it implies more work and traveling.
The company, which has recently returned from a tour of Italy and Slovenia, will appear at the Orange County Performing Arts Center beginning Friday for the West Coast premiere of Shen's years-in-the-making triptych, "Re-(Parts I, II, III)."
Following that, Shen will mount the same program at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and then travel to Monaco, where he will work on a brand new piece for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo that will premiere in July. That same month, his company will perform as part of the American Dance Festival in North Carolina.
In between engagements, he and his company are in residence at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. The multiethnic troupe consists of 13 dancers, comparable to other major modern dance organizations like Mark Morris or Morphoses.
Shen's choreographic style is firmly planted in modernism even if he frequently quotes or references elements of Asian antiquity. His stagings frequently evoke an ordered chaos that deliberately deprives the viewer of a single point of focus in favor of a multiplicity of writhing bodies.
"Re-(Parts I, II, III)" arrives at an opportune moment in his career. With its themes of reflection and renewal, the piece serves as an informal retrospective of the choreographer's favored motifs, such as East-West fusion and a painterly sense of visual composition. The triptych is based on Shen's travels to Tibet, Cambodia's Angkor Wat and China. The three chapters, which he said can be performed out of order, freely mix time periods, nationalities and choreographic styles.
Essentially nonnarrative, "Re-" emphasizes complex ensemble movement and discordant physical rhythms. At one point, several nude dancers pose and strut languorously to suggest the statues of Angkor Wat. Later, members perform a concurrent series of isolated dances to evoke the disconnection of modern China. Their movements are set to music by David Lang, violinist Todd Reynolds as well as indigenous sounds.
Parts of "Re-" were performed as early as 2006, and the entire work was performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2009. The choreographer said traveling to the three regions "stimulated my senses" and that he attempted to evoke how the Asian continent has moved into a new, global era.
Nigel Redden, the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, has programmed Shen's work five times in the last 10 years. He said Shen's choreography has absorbed more external influences over the years.
"Shen creates striking images that are beautiful to look at," said Redden. "Not everyone likes his work, but I love it."
Critics have observed that Shen tends to emphasize visuals over pure dance. In a review of the company's 2004 L.A. debut, then-Times dance critic Lewis Segal wrote that Shen's "Folding" gave the impression that "we weren't watching dance at all but some kind of gallery installation."
Shen's background, which includes painting, design and Peking Opera, is remarkably diverse for a choreographer. Born to opera performers in rural Hunan, he studied the rarefied musical form until moving into dance. In 1995, he immigrated to the U.S. after receiving a scholarship from the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab.
One of the first U.S. organizations to recognize Shen's talent in a big way was the American Dance Festival in North Carolina. The festival has hosted the company many times over the years. Charles Reinhart, the festival's director, said describing Shen's choreographic style can be difficult since each piece is different. "There are no transitions in his work, it's all flow," Reinhart said.
Shen appears to take a certain detachment when it comes to unfavorable reviews: "They don't really matter -- it's not the final, or the real value of the work."
The choreographer grabbed his biggest audience in 2008 when he staged parts of the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. His portion of the ceremony involved dancers using their bodies to paint a floor canvas in the manner of his piece "Connect Transfer," which was staged at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2007.
When he's away from dance, Shen cultivates a hermetic existence. "I don't go out at all. Maybe it's my personality," he said. "It's strange when people go out -- you try to be someone you're not. When people go to parties, they're acting the whole time."
Perhaps as a result of hitting middle age, Shen has been thinking more about his legacy. He said he is working on codifying a new dance technique -- one that emphasizes the performer's internal energy and breathing -- as well as expanding his company's educational programs.
"I'm also going to start experimenting by pushing myself to take more risks, to see how I would like to dance in the next 10 or 20 years," he said. (Shen sometimes performs in his own work.) Possible avenues include more multimedia exploration and dance on film.
Shen apparently doesn't like to plan too far ahead. He said he hasn't even begun work on the commission due this summer for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.
"I'm still shopping for vegetables, and you don't cook until the moment," he said, employing a metaphor from one of his hobbies. "I collect all the things I'm interested in and then in May it's time for me to cook -- to see what I have in my refrigerator."