Over at the Tucson Museum of Art, Shen Wei is exhibiting five large action paintings, all of them alive with movement. Sweeping strokes of paint in black, white and gray dance over the canvases, creating abstract curves and hollows and passages of dark and light.
At Centennial Hall on Sunday, Nov. 22, the dancers of Shen Wei Dance Arts will take those painterly moves onto the stage in a concert of Shen Wei's modern choreography. Hailed by critics as "enigmatic" and "dream-like," Shen Wei's lyrical works are performed by dancers dressed in brilliant red or monochromatic gray. One writer has called his dances "a painter's gift."
This choreographer of painterly dances—and painter of action art—grew up immersed in traditional Chinese arts as the child of opera artists in Hunan province of China.
"My father was a director, writer, actor and designer," Shen Wei, 47, said by phone last week from his home base in New York. "My mother would produce and manage the wardrobe. As a kid in this environment, you listen to the music and see the performances."
By the age of 6, Shen Wei made appearances in the operas, and by 9, he began formal training and became a regular performer.
"I sang and spoke and acted" in the operas, he said.
At the same time, outside his opera work, he studied traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy.
"Traditional Chinese art is done with a brush, but there are a lot of rules," Likewise, the movement he learned in Chinese opera was more rigid.
"At 15, I got interested in western art and that led to an interest in western performance and contemporary dance. My new idea was to make new work for modern dance rather than to follow tradition and rules."
When Shen Wei was 21, he went to Guangdong Dance Academy, the first modern dance school in China. In a program organized by the American Dance Festival, he trained with teachers sent to China by the great modern dance troupes in New York, including the Martha Graham, José Limón and Merce Cunningham companies.
"I made an effort to really learn modern dance. After 11 years of Chinese opera, it felt like the opposite," he says.
Within two years, Shen Wei co-founded Guangdong Modern Dance Company—China's first modern troupe, but he left China more or less permanently in 1995 after winning a full scholarship to study in New York with Nickolais/Louis Dance Lab. He was immediately invited to choreograph new work at the American Dance Festival in North Carolina. By 2000, he created his own company, Shen Wei Dance Arts.
In the 15 years since, Shen Wei has toured his company around the world to much acclaim, and picked up more than a few prizes, including the MacArthur "Genius Grant" and a Guggenheim Fellowship. China tapped him to be co-choreographer for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which was a spectacle with a cast of thousands that attracted at least a billion TV viewers world-wide.
For the Sunday concert at Centennial Hall (the troupe's first-ever performance in Tucson), Shen Wei has selected two works that date back to the earliest years of Shen Wei Dance Arts.
"The Rite of Spring," from 2003, is a re-imagining of the 1913 work choreographed by Nijinksy to a score by Stravinsky. In Shen Wei's version, the mythical narrative is banished, replaced by abstract dances performed by a cast of 15. The grandiose costumes are dispensed with as well, in favor of simple dance togs in plain black, gray and white. And instead of a full orchestral score, the Stravinsky music is rendered by a piano solo, via a recording by Fazil Say(cq).
"Folding," an even earlier work, from 2000, took Shen Wei back to China. He created the piece of his old company, Guangdong. The movement was inspired by Shen Wei's fascination with the "simple action of folding: of paper, fabric, flesh." The women in the company are dressed in flowing skirts; the fabric trails behind them as they move across the stage and settles into folds when the dancers alight on the floor. The 35-minute work with 15 dancers is danced to traditional Tibetan Buddhist Mahakala chants and contemporary music by John Tavener(cq).
Shen Wei also continues to paint, he said, and hopes to visit his own show at the Tucson Museum of Art while he's here.
"What I'm doing now in art," he says, "combines the Chinese teaching and tradition with Western influence. My paintings have a connection to Chinese art in a spiritual way.
"Every year I make a new dance for the company, and every evening after rehearsal I go to my painting studio."
The studio is at a distance from Shen Wei's New York home. He has to travel on the PATH train to New Jersey to get there and then back, but he believes it's worth the effort.
"I don't have a family, kids or babies," he said. "I do have time to do this."