Calmness and chaos

Two creative visions are explored at International Dance Festival Ireland.

30th April 2006





The Chinese choreographer Shen Wei approaches creativity as though he is mastering a chess game, planning each move. He creates on the premise that the arts cannot be separated, and in the performance he brought to the International Dance Festival Ireland last week, dance and visual art intertwined.

Performers as statues came to life, stepping mere inches. No matter whether toppling to the floor or bumping into something beside themselves, their movement spoke volumes with its gorgeous visual imagery.

Shen’s work opened with his Rite of Spring and closed with Folding, a dance portraying rites of passage. Both communicated their messages as if created by a Chinese calligrapher making slow, clear brush strokes.

Born in Hunan, Shen studied Chinese opera from the age of nine, as well as calligraphy and visual art. His father was a Chinese opera performer, so he understood early on that careful articulation and detailed movement are paramount. After mastering acrobatics and theatre, he became one of the first members of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and received a scholarship to study at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab — an influential training ground for American modern dancers — moving to New York City in 1995 and starting Shen Wei Dance Arts in 2000.

He did not have it easy. His early years in New York included rough living conditions, a heart problem and subsequent surgery. But he stayed with his dream and received commissions from the American Dance Festival.

The Rite of Spring was one of that festival’s projects and it uncovers Shen’s methodical way of thinking. The dancers start by standing in carefully appointed positions atop a giant, grey canvas. They inch forward, turn slightly, then gracefully step several feet away into the next square. The first few moves are done in silence, until the performers gain momentum and begin energetically crossing the stage. They wear grey costumes streaked with white; their powdered faces suggest dust or stone.

The cast has adopted a movement lexicon not seen in any other dance company.

Stravinsky’s score, written in 1912, gathers energy and with it the dancers spiral and spin. No matter how fast they spin they maintain exquisite balance. Shen has passed on Chinese opera moves such as minuscule footsteps quickly covering space, so that whenever dancers do skim across the stage, leap or sit down, they remain statuesque.

The Rite of Spring combines a formal, upright stance with fluid arms and torsos so that the dancers’ bodies remain compact while their limbs appear almost liquid. Just when the walking or running takes over, they spiral upward and unfurl like a kite’s tail in the wind.

In previous pieces Shen has incorporated paint, fabric and other visual elements. Connect Transfer involves performers wearing floor-length fabric, bell-shaped gloves on their arms. As the performers move, the paint-dipped gloves create patterns on the stage. The Rite of Spring offers glimpses of those same weighted arms, as if choreography from previous dances has slipped into the dancers’ bloodstream.

The careful steps throughout Rite of Spring suggest a formal, organised mapping, but Folding feels more human. In it dancers wear red robes wrapped and tied at the waist, skin-coloured tops and large bulbous head-dresses. John Tavener’s music, edited by Kung Chi Shing, incorporates Tibetan Buddhist chanting and, in the beginning, dancers come and go suggesting monks attending morning prayers. Instead of remaining in this purely meditative motion, however, interactions begin to tell a story.

A figure in black appears, carried high above the proceedings like a goddess. She engages in a ritual with another figure under her billowing black robes and, when they finish, she holds on to him, hanging backwards, her world turned upside down. A new figure in black tumbles across the stage as if created from the couple’s union, and as dancers shift and form different pairings, the effect becomes a slow-motion mix of visual art, dance and cinema.

One dancer lies on her back upstage, twirling her feet in the air. This playfulness develops into something more serious as a group congregates and one of the dancers — Shen — steps out.

This part feels emblematic, because, as Shen begins to move, the others follow reluctantly and then mimic his movements more quickly. When his arms ripple like waves, so do theirs. When his chest points to the sky as if he’s screaming or praying, they also repeat that, as if trying to tap into his experience.

Shen and the group always retain a connection, but once he separates, a small distance keeps them permanently away. The dance’s last section possibly mirrors Shen’s experience leaving China and moving to the west, in which he straddled two worlds, because his strong voice constantly remains to set him apart.

Three nights earlier, Belgian dance group Les Ballets C de la B launched the dance festival with a performance that also stood out.

Dance is often called the art form most closely connected to spirit: not for no reason did early ballets create fairies and sylphs to represent ethereal beings. Les Ballets C de la B evoked a different kind of spirit, however. Their VSPRS evoked struggle, pain and little hope of transcendence.

French choreographer Alain Platel relied heavily on the short films that German psychiatrist Arthur Van Gehuchten made of his patients, having become fascinated by the way the subjects in those films moved. Platel transferred their mental and physical disturbances on to Les Ballets C de la B’s performers, causing them to shout, rip off layers of clothing and throw themselves against the imposing set. The company, operating as a collective where each member has a voice, displayed the suppressed urges that must reside in every human — screaming hysterically, latching on to complete strangers and climbing out of a dangerous situation and into an even more perilous one.

Magnifying the psyche’s darker side often offers some kind of illumination, but in VSPRS it disturbs. The performers adopt physically demanding positions, awkwardly reaching out to each other but receiving little comfort.

The dancers try to escape by ascending a mountain of wire mesh covered in ripped white rags, but the curtain closes before they reach any resolution.

Images in VSPRS are striking — such as when one performer holds another upside down in a position resembling a broken weather vane — but mostly the movement depicts a lengthy process where people look for external help, lose it and start the struggle again. The cast is constantly challenged with obstacles, from taking a drink of water to staying clothed, and ordinary actions shoot at them like bullets.

Nine musicians at the back of the stage provide calm continuity, with soprano Maribeth Diggle occasionally stepping forward.

The musicians play Fabrizio Cassol’s version of Monteverdi’s Vespers and with it the dancers’ physical struggles magnify. During one poignant moment a dancer climbs on to the platform and clings to Diggle, as if standing so close provides strength and sanity.

Reciting the lines from the prayer of St Francis of Assisi, the dancer waits for redemption that sadly never comes. Instead, Diggle steps down into the swarm of dancers and takes on some of their ticks — head nodding, hands twitching and shaking with a wild, unsteady gleam in her eye. Her song emerges beautifully, but chaos ensues around her.

For those with the stamina to endure it, messages of humanity peek through the struggles in VSPRS. Performers try to help each other — one collapses and gets picked up by another, slowly making their way towards the wall. Watching the piece feels like stepping into the privacy of someone’s bedroom, where people battle with their personal demons.

Peter De Blieck’s set looked like a cross between hospital walls and countless rows of Buddhist prayers, which the performers latched on to and occasionally ascended. While some Buddhists write their wishes on small white pieces of paper and hang them outside temples to find solace, the individuals in VSPRS encountered little salvation, despite the bevy of pleas that may have been floating around them.

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.