Shen Wei Dance Arts expands boundaries

Shen Wei Dance Arts perform “Map.”

When two worlds in the arts universe collide, an interesting blend of techniques and vocabularies is created. This is exactly what Spoleto audiences can see tonight in the opening performance of Shen Wei Dance Arts.

An established choreographer, painter and designer, Shen Wei leads his company through intricate pieces that are a mix of visual and performance art conceived, choreographed and designed by him. Wei’s dance creations can include paint and canvas, ropes, projections and unique uses of space to produce striking scenes that cross over into visual art. They feature dance movement such as center-shifting (transferring your weight causing certain body parts to move freely), joint rotations (pivoting and extending joints around an axis) and continuous movements.

Wei studied with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham and learned classical Chinese dance. His company has been stretching the definition of modern dance for 15 years.

“Modern dance is constantly evolving,” said Burr Johnson, a dancer with the company. “So I feel like what he is interested in is figuring out is how he can push us as dancers to the next level. How he can pull something out of us that he hasn’t seen from us, or from anyone else.”

With dances from as early as 2000 still in their performance cycle, members of the company fit into roles created with a past company dancer in mind. Wei instructs his dancers to use his technique to challenge themselves and make the choreography their own, according to Johnson, who has been with Shen Wei Dance Arts since 2009.

“He likes to say, ‘We need to make this look expensive,’ and not as if we are recycling the same moves,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t want to see one dancer do it the same as James Healey (a founding company member), he would want that dancer to take these movements and create something different, better, and (go) further.”

Making a fourth appearance here at the Spoleto USA Festival, Shen Wei Dance Arts will perform two works from their nine-piece touring repertory, including a new piece called “Untitled #12-2,” which will debut at the Sottile Theatre.

Adapted from an earlier site-specific work, “Untitled #12-2” will show the company’s ability to adapt to a proscenium stage. The original piece, “Untitled #12-1,” was presented to audiences for a one-time performance at Miami Dade College Museum of Art & Design in February.

“We are figuring out exactly how it’s going to read differently on stage and how it’s going to translate,” said Jennifer Rose, a company member who is in her second year with Shen Wei Dance Arts. This process of changing from a rather particular venue to a more restricting environment required a vast amount of research by Wei and the dancers, Rose said.

The choreography was inspired by a series of Wei’s large-scale paintings. To understand the piece and how it was developed for the stage, dancers examined how the artwork felt texturally, and how they could reflect those ideas through movement. This process is applied to all of his works.

Preparation is key, especially because the company must be extremely cohesive to achieve the image and energy Wei wants, according to Johnson and Rose. Aware of one another at all times, each dancer learns from fellow company members. Through study and practice, dancers add certain stylistic elements and forge a community, Rose said.

“It’s not just moving your body around,” she said. “It is about putting yourself somewhere mentally. It’s about embodying these elements, and I think that’s really what makes his work transformative to audiences.”

Love Lee is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.