“Shen Wei is a visual artist as well as a choreographer, and all his dances take moving design as their subject” –Deborah Jowitt, The Village Voice, September 2006
Early on a Thursday evening New York-based choreographer Shen Wei, winner of this year’s Southern Methodist University Meadows Prize, met with a small group of local dance critics to discuss the three week residency he has just completed at the university. We gathered around a table in a large conference room just outside the Hammon Arts Library. Shen Wei, a delicate man with fine bones and a small unassuming voice to match quietly began telling us about his work. The discussion was something of an adventure into the realm of purely distilled ideas about movement, self-reflection and emotion, and a kind of kinesthetic conceptual art.
For his Meadows Prize project, Shen Wei carefully selected an ensemble cast from across theMeadowsSchoolof the Arts. Included in the project are: 9 female dancers, 2 theater students, 2 music students, 2 visual arts students, 2 film students and a computer science student. Over a three week period, juggling academic, rehearsal and personal schedules, the cast came together an average of four hours a day six days a week to explore, to build, and to create under his guiding influence.
The process began with a simple task. Each cast member was asked to sign their name on a paper. (According to Shen Wei, the act of signing ones name has a flow unique to the author.) He then asked the dancers to mimic the flow of each signature, to take notice of the individuality, to try to deconstruct the personalities through analyzing unique movement choices as they write their name across the paper. From this starting point a series of self-reflective exercises took shape encouraging self discovery through movement and art. Shen Wei calls this his “system.”
The entire production started from nothing. There was no movement, no music, no props or scenery, no animation, no narrative, just pure nothingness. It is quite a daunting undertaking, even for a seasoned master choreographer, to attempt to create something from nothing in three weeks with a group of artists with whom he has never worked with before. And while exploration of movement from a purely academic perspective has tremendous value for the artists involved, for the prize winning choreographer who has been flown in to produce a commissioned work of art, imagine the anxiety of spending hours in the studio, hoping to see a happy coincidence of music, art, theater and dance occur.
Which begs the question, can purely abstract movement, delivered with no preconceived ideas, no defined structure or narrative become a work of performing art without a resulting loss of distinctiveness? Or will the final production be an excruciating descent into pretension and boredom for audiences?
I know some people will find my perspective sacrilegious, to expect to see a finished product with at least a basic form (beginning, middle and end) presented to paying audiences. Shen Wei’s “system” is meant to be a catalyst that takes both performers and audience outside their comfort zone of expectations. He expects both to avoid the temptation to define the experience, but a performer and observers will always be subject to their own colored judgment. Subjectivity is inescapable at all times.
Observing Shen Wei in rehearsals, like any good choreographer, he has the clarity and sharpness to edit and challenge dancers to lessen or increase intention and physicality. The phrases we saw were complex waves of elongated limbs carving through space in one seamless motion as each dancer progressed across a defined linear pathway just like a pen moving across paper as it forms a signature. Unfortunately, with only three days left of rehearsals with Shen Wei, these young dancers did not appear to own their movement just yet. They have just skimmed the surface of frozen potential. Hopefully between now and the March 28th performance a completed work will emerge.
In the end, was this residency successful? Perhaps that can only be answered by those who defined the original goals. If it was meant to be a choreography workshop, exploration of out-of-the-box thinking, and a collaborative challenge across arts genres for SMU Meadows students, than it most certainly achieved that.
The Shen Wei choreographed program will be performed as part of the 2012 Meadows Dance: Spring Dance Concert, which will take place from Mar 28-Apr 1.
Photo: Shen Wei (second from left) by Whitney Browne via.