Even if you missed the large paintings hanging in the theater lobby, you’d guess that Chinese-born Shen Wei is a visual artist as well as a choreographer. The dances he showed at the Lincoln Center Festival are painterly in the extreme. Every gesture seems less about movement than about design. In his 2000 Folding, when white-painted women and men in tall beehive headpieces turn within their trailing red silk skirts and fold into half-sideways bows, the gesture prints itself onto the stage like calligraphy onto a page. A dancer twists into a sit; you see a crimson spiral.
In this curiously static, drowsily beautiful world, very little happens. Over and over. Although the piece may be about the act of folding, it might almost be titled Beneath the Sea. Walking smoothly, arms held at their sides, the 13 magnificently controlled dancers resemble a school of fish. When their paths encompass curves and scallops, their skirts flick behind them like tails. On the painted backcloth, a medium-sized fish eyes two tiny ones; downstage, a plumb bob swings from a fish line. In the magical ending, when the backdrop has lifted, the people in red slowly climb invisible stairs into the darkness at the rear, seeming to float upward toward the unseen surface.
There are people in black, too; they pass peaceably among the red ones, sometimes with a woman seated on a man’s back or chest, both of them ensnared in black silk. Wei begins in black but changes into red for a long, writhing-in-place solo in one corner. David Ferri’s lovely, clear lighting and John Tavener’s music mixed with Buddhist chants add to the mystery.
Wei’s new The Rite of Spring is also more shapely in terms of space than of time. Like one of the lobby paintings—a mass of curling black lines filling a white canvas—the dance makes your eyes and mind go around and around, never resolving anything or feeling development. Wei elected to ignore Stravinsky’s scenario for this elemental score, and his choreography acknowledges the music’s big changes, rhythms, and melodic impulses in an almost fragmentary way, ignoring the inexorable drive conveyed by pianist Fazil Say duetting with himself on tape. In a ritualistic ambience, people often move one by one, walking to new places, emitting a startling, twisted jump, sitting suddenly, bending an elbow as if it were cracking. In this oddly fascinating world, their sense of one another is that of visitors to a museum, neither uncomfortable nor truly at ease.
You’d guess that a piece named Ana- phaza—after a mitosis in which mother and daughter cells get as far from each other as possible—would be mainly about separation, but Ohad Naharin does not, I think, see separation as always desirable, even if it’s often necessary. One arresting thing about this wild and brilliant piece, which Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company brought to the Lincoln Center Festival, is the way in which concept and choreography bridge opposites of many kinds to create a contemporary tribalism. Even the dissimilar sections of Anaphaza slide together with an air of inevitability. When performers go out into the house, wearing men’s suits and fedoras, and bring women from the audience onstage to dance with and for, the bonding between the costumed professionals (who get wilder and wilder for their partners’ benefit) and their former spectators is both funny and touching. In another sequence, a film (by Ruth Gadish) is projected onto both a white screen and Inbal Yaacobi (first white-clad, later naked); she melds with her projected image so subtly that it’s hard to tell which is which. While Chisato Ohno dances sorrowfully, we hear the names of members of the world’s dance tribe lost to AIDS; and for a few moments, the naming reconnects them to us. Naharin, svelte in a long red dress, sings haltingly—to mournfully comic effect—of lost love, his words projected on small, handheld screens; his wistfulness is balanced by an earlier, exuberantly eccentric mating dance between Noa Zouk and Roy Itzhak Halevi.
Music-making is a vital part of Anaphaza. In addition to well-chosen pieces on tape by a variety of composers, drummer Dani Makov plays from a high platform at the back of the stage; three dancers join him for fierce bouts of percussion. Naharin plays guitar to Avi Belleli’s bass, and the cast sings what might almost be a madrigal in several parts. The performers open the work sitting in a semicircle, dressed in their men’s attire, joining in a Passover song with a ferocity that matches their unison gestures, twisting and shifting on their chairs. In Israel, this section briefly caused a ruckus on religious grounds, maybe because the dancers start hurling off their hats, their shoes, their suits, as if to liberate themselves from tradition. There’s something tribal about Naharin’s bold, swinging movement itself. The superb performers splay their legs in front of them when they jump, step spraddle-legged. They work low to the ground (or on the floor), lashing the air with their arms and bodies—fighting it, owning it. Yet this dancing is somehow as sensual as that of their quieter, dreamier moments.
Avi-Yona Bueno’s lighting is as imaginative as everything else about Anaphaza, from the explosion of sparks into smoke at the beginning to the wheelable light poles that create enigma around four softly spotlit women in pointy party hats. Indeed, the whole piece has the ambience of a curious carnival we’re thrilled to be part of.
It was one of those incomprehensible things. Mel Wong—choreographer, dancer, teacher, father—was swimming laps, felt tired, got out of the pool . . . and died. Ironically, the pieces he made after leaving Merce Cunningham’s company in 1972 were often peaceful rituals involving water—also sand, objects, people dancing beautifully. One, Zip Code (1972), lasted 12 hours. We came and went. At the end of his 1976 Breath, the dancers, one by one, fogged a pane of glass with their breath and passed on. Mel was a spiritual thinker. The mist on the glass is evanescent, but the act, the breathers, have left an imprint on the world. As he most certainly did.