Dance review: Shen Wei’s ‘Re-’ in Costa Mesa

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Shen Wei is a choreographer, calligrapher, painter and photographer whose comfort zone as a maker of dances extends to set, costume and sound design. Not without reason, he calls his company Shen Wei Dance Arts. He is, above all, a master plumber of movement, all kinds of movement. He keeps the taps open.
(Click here or the photo at right for additional images from Shen Wei’s ‘Re-’.)

Flow, of course, is the operative word in any discussion of Shen, whose recent large-scale tripartite “Re- (I, II, III)” had its West Coast premiere Friday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Art forms flow. Bodies flow. Shen Wei technique mimics boneless movement. His dancers on the Segerstrom Hall stage seemed more like a Shen Wei species.


“Re-,” Shen writes in his program notes, “invokes concepts of return, reconsideration and renewal.” The dance historian Cyrus Parker-Jeannette said in a pre-performance talk that Shen also likes to note President Obama’s favoring of words that begin with re-. “Re-“ is Shen’s reflections on trips to Asia -- Tibet, China’s big cities, the Silk Road, the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia – more than a decade after leaving his native China and moving to New York.

In “Re- (Part I),” dancers prepare a mandala on stage with colored confetti as the audience enters. The mandala’s makers then march through it in disciplined lockstep, some breaking off as flexible individuals but always falling back into the mass. The backdrop is a projection of darkening clouds.

The confetti is quickly whipped up into multicolored dust which adheres to the dancers’ peasant-like dress. Acting as a spiritual static cling, the mandala’s pattern-essence ultimately infects the eight dancers as they flow (what else?) into ever-changing designs.

This is Tibet. We know it is Tibet because the music is loudly amplified recordings of elongated Tibetan horns and Tibetan vocal chanting. Visually, the result is stunning. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting of all three parts provides continual surprise and delight. The dancers create a sense of wonder whether as a collective or those momentary rebellious individuals, perhaps representing the “fluid’ situation of China’s not only having invaded Tibet but over the years having transformed its society.

But what does it mean that the music is offensively loud, that the music meant to focus the mind in prayer is made to sound angry and ugly? Even enforced sections of silence are not meditative. They were filled in by the hall’s noisy air-conditioning system.

“Re- (Part III)” was performed as the middle section, and it was louder still. The dance, though again abstract, here suggested the stark contrast between the Silk Road and Asia’s super-cities. In the first section were delicious, delicate deconstructions of serene limpness, with bodies acting as falling bridges in slow motion. Later, the company exchanged modest earth-tone apparel for black shorts, tops and socks, and worked itself into a frenzy.

Between these two sections came a solo for Cecily Campbell, who oscillated peaceably on one leg. Behind her a black line projected on the scrim oscillated as well, growing into images of ice flows grown into a skyline on steroids.

“Re- (Part III)” is the one section for which original music was composed. David Lang created a compellingly repetitious etude for solo violin and then layered the processed sound of his soloist, Todd Reynolds, with thumping electronics. Shen prefaced that mix with a soundscape he had recorded at a clattering market sounds and used recorded train effects as an epilogue.

There are fascinating layers, here – dance layers, visual layers, music layers, cultural layers. Yet Shen did his best to obliterate them all. For all his sophistication and versatility, for all the discipline and virtuosity of his art, Shen has a inner showman that can practically cause his work to self-destruct. Amplified electronic music at high volumes, as this was, has a Fascist function, physically pushing the audience around, preventing it from its own fresh or original thoughts.

“Re- (Part II)” came last. Visually it proved the most arresting of all and musically the most offensive. The backdrop was Angkor Wat, its temples and trees. Dancers coated in white paint became, in spectacular lighting, phenomenal living statuary. Their bodies looked ‘Avatar'-like, but compared with Shen’s startling living tableau, James Cameron’s digital 3-D might seem one-dimensional.

The score is Shen’s own mix of John Tavener’s ethereal “Tears of Angels,” jungle sounds and a fascinating ensemble of disabled Cambodian musicians, the Moon Light Band, who make their own instruments. This is great, evocative stuff. And yet at a painful volume with screeching treble, it was great stuff robbed of its musical character, all of it asked to shriek the same way.
Maybe those shrieks furthered Shen’s point about merging cultures, about the destruction of ancient ways, about flow becoming awful flood -- or something. But he doesn’t treat his dancers like that. At least, I hope he doesn’t.

-- Mark Swed

Shen Wei Dance Arts: “Re- (I, II, III),” Segerstrom Hall, Costa Mesa, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $11 to $64. (714) 556-2787 or


Shen Wei takes time to reflect on the last decade