Almost all of the many choreographers who’ve tackled Igor Stravinsky’s monumental Le Sacre du Printemps have acknowledged in some way the scenario built into the score. Not Shen Wei. The 12 dancers in his 2003 Rite of Spring do not gather for a fertility ritual; no one is sacrificed. The music Stravinsky wrote for Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1913 ballet even sounds different in the four-hand-piano arrangement played (on tape) by Fazil Say. Quiet passages ripple almost buoyantly, unpunctuated by the insistent calls of other instruments.
Shen is a visual artist as well as a choreographer, and all his dances take moving design as their subject. In a program note, he mentions finding “body systems and movement ideas” to match what he heard in the music. The composition process involved structured improvisation, the 12 dancers contributing to the skewed imagery—rotating their shoulders, scissoring their legs, twisting one body part against another.
This Rite has no single climax; rather, it has many small ones. There’s no counterpart to the music’s inexorable build-up. The dancers enter one by one to stand on a dark gray floorcloth painted with a few slanting lines, vague arcs, and a dusting of lighter color (lit by David Ferri). Then they walk to new spots. Or run there. Their walk is very strange, guarded. Resembling wandering windup toys, they hold their arms at their sides and take small, gliding steps, their upper thighs close together.
Shen’s Rite is far more compelling in the comparative intimacy of the Joyce than it was three years ago in the bland and cavernous concert hall at LaGuardia High School, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The soloists thrashing through a forest of still figures, the sudden eruptions, and the shifting patterns have a mesmerizing effect. Near the music’s climax, lines of performers flanking the stage at either side walk simultaneously in small individual circles that pull toward and away from Shen as he dances between them. The created tide is tranquil and troubling at the same time.
It’s as if Shen has created a map that might stand for a more dramatic Rite. Those familiar with the music’s embedded tale can see onstage what might be its residue—left in a tribe’s muscle memory eons after the ritual.
Shen’s new work Re- (Part One), inspired by his experiences in Tibet, approaches the dynamics of design very differently, creating a dialogue between the stage’s center and its corners. We hear a woman’s low voice singing in darkness, melismata bubbling and sliding from deep inside her. Very gradually Jennifer Tipton’s magical lighting reveals Nepali nun Ani Choying Dolma seated at the edge of a glowing circle of white particles, the center of a mandala created by Shen; radiating from it is a square of blue particles, then a circle of bare floor, and so on, the whole staged framed by a white line. It’s a shock when Dai Jian’s first slow backward steps scatter the perfect design, but by the end of the dance, the floor is a snowfield.
There are only four dancers in this piece: Jian, Lindsay Clark, Kathleen Jewitt, and Sara Procopio. Whereas in Rite, performers slam into many of their movements, in Re-, they grow slowly into each position—long balances with one leg stretched into the air or tucked close so that they resemble watchful herons, low lunges that seem to well up from the floor. Everything the four do is as smooth and even as breathing, whether they’re holding down the corners, dancing alone in the center, or kneeling quietly, close to the powerful, almost motionless singer, who has moved to sit at one side of the stage, her chanting spelled by taped reverberations of her own voice.
In Re- as in Rite, nothing changes for good. There’s no destination, just the hypnotic beauty of the path.