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A painter's eye for steps

Swirling into town, Shen Wei Dance Arts brings to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion the artistically exhaustive visions of its founder.

March 14, 2004|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

NOT unlike a Ferrari -- exotic, elegant and known for a high-velocity cruising capacity -- choreographer, dancer, painter and designer Shen Wei has been on a wild ride. Born in southeastern China during the Cultural Revolution, the slightly built Shen trained as a boy to become a Chinese opera performer. But by the time he was 27, he was creating dances, and in a distinctly contemporary idiom. Then, offered the chance to study in the U.S., he moved to New York City, unwittingly took up residence where drugs were the chief attraction -- and has since taken the modern dance world by storm.

As he stands on the empty stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, visibly smitten with its vast expanse, you can almost see Shen's synapses firing. Like an artist contemplating a canvas before applying that first splash of color, he ponders the space that his 3-year-old company, Shen Wei Dance Arts, will inhabit Friday and Saturday as part of its first large-scale tour.In one of the more anticipated local debuts of recent years, Shen arrives with fistfuls of accolades, especially for his rendering of Igor Stravinsky's iconic "Rite of Spring." The attention grabber of last year's Lincoln Center Festival -- New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff called it an "action painting come to life" -- Shen's "Rite" is performed on a 42-by-46-foot geometric painting created by the choreographer.

Against this suggestion of a surreal chessboard, the work represents a wedding of Shen's choreographic and painterly sensibilities. As a dozen dancers -- their poker faces tinted chalk-white -- sway and twitch in gray and black costumes that Shen also designed, his "Rite" brings postmodernism into the 21st century.

"There is a gambling quality in that moment of live experience," Shen says in heavily accented English. The ballet "is different every performance, though it's constructed in the studio. I want to see the work in that moment, in that time."

You might say such expectations come naturally to Shen, now 35, whose beatific face and placid demeanor belie his fiercely held convictions about art and its place in the world. He was born into an artistic family in Xian Ying, a town in China's Hunan province. And because his father was a performer and director in the Hunan Xian opera tradition, Shen, who had studied calligraphy as a child, obliged his family and was admitted to the opera department of the Hunan Arts School in 1978, after the Cultural Revolution.

During a grueling six-year training regimen, he was immersed in the arts. For some 15 hours a day, he studied acting, movement, dance, acrobatics, singing and speaking. In 1984, at age 16, he joined his father's company, fully believing, he says, that he would spend his life there. But within a few years, he attended a modern dance concert by a Canadian troupe, and the experience changed his life.

By 1991, he had hooked up with a group of performers who wanted to break out of traditional careers. He became a founding member of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, China's first such troupe. He also began choreographing for the company, while soaking up as much as he could about modern dance by reading and watching videos of the works of Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch and Martha Graham.

A quick study, he was awarded first prize in 1994 for both choreography and performance at China's inaugural National Modern Dance Competition. The following year, by then decidedly on the fast track, he received a scholarship in the U.S. from the pioneering Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab, where choreographers Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis combined elaborate lighting and scenic effects with movement. That scholarship brought him to Manhattan, which he since has called home and unequivocally adores.

"New York," he says, "is a world in a small version. There are so many cultures and different tastes and so many new arts. I began thinking, 'How can I find my own way?' It is intense, and things go really fast."

A metaphor, as it were, for Shen's new life, one in which he taught himself English and lived in a building that was a magnet for drug dealers. (He since has moved but, in keeping with his Zen-like philosophy, says he never feared or judged his neighbors, accepting them instead as fellow "human beings.")

Meanwhile, he continued to absorb as much culture as possible. He particularly cites movies, especially Federico Fellini's (he says he's seen "Satyricon" 10 times), and the paintings of Francis Bacon. Both were to be powerful influences on his work.

Health problems led to serenity

In 1999, Shen -- who says he never smoked cigarettes or did drugs and can barely finish one glass of wine -- began to have difficulty breathing. His heart, he learned, was beating 220 times a minute -- a physical manifestation, he says, of "living in a place like New York City."

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