New York-based Chinese choreographer, Shen Wei is now touring with his new dance trilogy "Re-(I, II, III)". He hit international headlines with his choreography for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Valentina Bonelli caught up with him in Parma.
Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei has brought an oriental dimension to American contemporary dance, investing it with new vitality and a pleasingly innovative aesthetic.
We caught up with him at the Teatro Regio in Parma, the first stop on his brief Italian tour of his stunning new dance trilogy Re – (I, II, III). “The trilogy developed out of my travels in Tibet, Cambodia and China – he explains – and it represents my personal vision of these countries. I absolutely loved some of the places I visited and upon my return I wanted to share some of the stronger emotions I had experienced with others, with the public. What is the link between the pieces? I would say it is Life: life lived under different conditions, in different societies, each with its own beliefs, its own culture and way of life: they are all human beings, that is the unifying link.”
How much of China – the heart of the trilogy – remains with Shen Wei, who left his homeland for the United States fifteen years ago? The remarkable professional and personal life of the 42-year-old choreographer appears to embody the best aspects of his country of origin: the entrepreneurial flair which still respects traditions; the openness to positive western influences and the amazing development undergone over the last 20 years.
“I started studying contemporary dance in 1989 – he recounts – just as China was opening up to artistic experimentation. Initially, this experimentation was permitted on a trial basis in the cities of Guangdong and Guanjong. I chose Guangdong, where they had selected a small group of top-level dancers. Together we started trying out dance techniques and choreographic compositions borrowed from Western modern dance styles. A couple of years later we were proficient enough to create our own works. In 1991 we formed the first modern Chinese dance company, the “Guangdong Modern Dance Company”, and within four years we had begun touring internationally. Following our success, the government created other companies and set up a programme of modern dance teaching, first in Beijing and then throughout China. It marked the birth of modern Chinese dance and we were the first generation!”
At the age of twenty-six, Shen Wei could not resist the call of the West. New York is still the “best place to be” for modern dance, and the young dancer was lucky enough to be offered a scholarship at the prestigious Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab. In his first year in the US, several of his choreographic compositions presented at the American Dance Festival were an instant success. Within five years, the Chinese-born choreographer (who also designs the sets, costumes and make-up for his creations) and his company Shen Wei Dance Arts, were presenting strikingly beautiful dance works, harmoniously combining oriental sacrality with Western contemporary choreography. “My dancers study my ‘natural body development technique’ which evolved over ten years – he explains. It is a new way of interpreting movement, based on understanding the principles of internal energy, momentum, energy transfer and internal rotation. It also contains some of the basic elements of Chinese opera, such as their way of walking and their expressive hand gestures”. But – Shen Wei is quick to point out – the training begun at the age of nine in ancient traditional arts such as opera, theatre, painting and singing has not influenced his methodology any more than any other forms.
This willingness to open up culturally and artistically must be one of the reasons Shin Wei was awarded the commission to choreograph the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; with the colossal parade of 1,600 performers under the direction of Zhang Yimou. “The fact that they chose a choreographer like me, who has been working overseas for many years, is proof of China’s open-mindedness and its willingness to be part of the international community. My choreography for the Games, which embraced 5,000 years of rich and varied history while simultaneously looking ahead to the future, was meant to be a symbol of modern China – a country that is not only historically fascinating but also engaged with the rest of the world. But for China to be a truly powerful country, it has to develop its own arts and culture just as it is doing with its economy, opening the minds of its citizens and informing them of what is happening around the world. This is the only way they can live in peace with the rest of the world.” – he comments, making no mystery of his political beliefs.
Shen Wei has made his choice and as a result he enjoys the privileges that the United States offers to a talented artist like himself. His manners and appearance are those of a stylish New Yorker and his fluent English betrays almost no trace of an accent. His company, which is generously supported by American patrons, has recently adopted the name of his new city of residence, Shen Wei Dance Arts New York.
“I have been given a lot by the United States – he admits. In a city like New York, which I really love, everybody works hard, not only for themselves, but also to give some of their gifts and talents to society, and that is particularly true of the arts. Here in New York I have learned to understand different cultures, and how to bring them together in my work. It doesn’t matter whether you have a traditional or a modern bent: in New York life pushes you forward, you never turn back. You live discovering what the future is going to be, even in art and dance. Of course, America means freedom: it has allowed me to have this dance company and to follow the artistic direction I want.”
Shen Wei’s feelings for his adopted country are born out in this trilogy. While visually still owing much to classic oriental styles (which at times seem almost deliberately stylized), here the best of his choreography and compositional ideas are purely American.
Journalist and dance critic who writes for a variety of titles such as Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue and the magazines Tuttodanza and Dans. She is the author of presentations and essays for Italy’s major theatres and dance festivals. She translated into Italian and edited “le Memorie di Marius Petipa”, Gremese editore, soon to be published.