“I am interested in not just creating dance, but an art experience,” says Shen Wei. The Chinese-born American choreographer and visual artist is one of the world’s foremost names in modern dance, and this weekend he brings his company, Shen Wei Dance Arts, to Chicago for the first time for two performances at the Auditorium Theatre.
The program consists of two pieces, Rite of Spring and Folding, that showcase his inventive movement and bold, abstract design sensibility. Though set to Stravinsky’s famous score for Le Sacre du Printemps (specifically, the composer’s arrangement for four-hand piano), the first work drops the ballet’s narrative in favor of more formal exploration. “My Rite of Spring is an expression of the feelings of the music and how it relates to movement,” Shen says. “It is very visceral. Folding is completely different, it is more dreamlike, perhaps even spiritual.”
Folding is set against a otherworldly backdrop painted by Shen Wei and modeled on an 18th-century watercolor by Chinese painter Bada Shanren; the ethereal music is by 16th-century English composer John Taverner, intermixed with traditional Tibetan Buddhist chants. The two works aren’t connected by an explicit theme, but in both “the dancers’ faces are painted a kind of chalky white, which gives them a sense of anonymity while heightening a collective sensibility,” says Shen. “One might sense that the dancers are participating in some kind of undefined, unnamed ritual.”
As a visual artist, Shen sees scenic elements and costume designs as extensions of the dance. “When I work in one medium it helps me think about another medium in an alternative way—to me, they are all interconnected,” he says. “So it is easy for me to see the body onstage as a canvas or a brush or a sculpture, because depending on the piece, they are those things on stage.”
Shen’s vision goes far beyond the choreography, and whether blossoming like seeds in spring soil or contorting into ever-shifting geometric shapes, his dancers are elevated by the visual design around them.
Shen Wei Dance Arts Sat 9/23, 7:30 PM; Sun 9/24, 2 PM, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress, 800-982-2787, auditoriumtheatre.org, $29-$68.