Shen Wei Dance Arts. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Vancouver Playhouse – March 2, 2018

The Vancouver International Dance Festival opened with a performance of two works by Shen Wei Dance Arts – Rite of Spring (2003) and Folding (2000). When VIDF co-producer Barbara Bought introduced the company, she said that she was determined to bring these pieces to Vancouver after seeing them in 2005 at Montpellier Danse, a festival of contemporary dance in France. Shen Wei’s work is certainly memorable and full of striking imagery that lingers long after the performance is over.

In Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky’s infamous score is pared down to a four-hand piano arrangement by Fazil Say, which accentuated the melody without its original discordant intensity. Twelve dancers in the ensemble articulated the staccato notes with gestures reminiscent of mid-20th century modern dance, including stiffly contorted bodies with shoulders that maintained an even plane as the torso tilted and turned, and momentum induced rolls and rotations. The dancers often traveled with shuffling feet and moved as a collective; there was a deliberate absence of the individual. At one point, all the dancers stood across downstage while keeping their eyes shut so that the audience observed their bodies, not their faces, quietly twitching to the music. When the show began under half-dimmed house lights, the dancers entered visibly into the wings, then spent several minutes onstage in silence, positioning themselves into their starting places. It was as if to acknowledge that every step and space where the dancers were was part of the performance. Dancers had chalk lines drawn along the length of their bodies and looked as though they rolled right off the floor, which bore the same design. Unlike the original The Rite of Spring, performed in Paris in 1913 by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the many inspired versions after, Shen Wei’s piece doesn’t have the character of the ‘chosen one’, and was absent of any narrative. However, the meditative rhythm of the dancers created a ritualistic state that, albeit repetitious, was intriguing.

According to the artist’s statement, Folding was inspired by “the simple action of folding: of paper, fabric, flesh – anything”, but that inspiration isn’t entirely obvious. Twelve dancers wore conical headpieces that visually amplified the tilt of their heads and also suggested something otherworldly. About half of them were wrapped in scarlet red fabric from the waist down, with their bodies and faces dusted white. There was a sense of purpose, although ambiguous. Set to a string composition by John Tavener overlayed with Tibetan Buddhist chants, each sensuously crafted scene was haunting and entirely mesmerizing. Shen Wei takes great care in pacing and seems to know the precise moment to bring in new imagery. Dancers glided in formations across the stage with red fabric trailing behind, then from a standing formation, they suddenly and successively dropped to sitting. Dancers dressed in long black skirts partnered in slow-moving poses, where one partner was hidden beneath or wrapped up in the extended train; they seemed to add tension to scenes shared with the dancers in red. In a welcome moment of reprieve, a red-skirted dancer stood downstage right and repeatedly swept his arms in a generous reach toward the audience. Adding to the mystery was a small golden pendulum that hung a few inches from the ground at stage left. At first it was still, then it began swaying side to side halfway through the piece.

The backdrop was a rendition of an 18th century Chinese ink painting by Bada Shanren. It depicted a large fish in the painting’s top left quadrant pointing directly at two small fish at the bottom right, leaving a gaping empty space in the centre. The artist was known for such unusual compositions, whose collectors tried to decipher its riddled meanings. Folding seems to have the same effect.

The Vancouver International Dance Festival continues until March 24, 2018.