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That'll leave a mark

Shen Wei dancers will turn the Disney Hall floor into a painted canvas.

June 20, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

THERE'S a huddle onstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall. But the participants aren't singers, instrumentalists or support staff for a music event. They're technical pros, readying the game plan for the hall's first full-evening dance production.

"Connect Transfer," by New York-based choreographer Shen Wei, is scheduled for the first of three performances in the hall Friday. And it's anything but a natural fit. Elsewhere on its current tour, this experimental abstraction is being danced against taut black drapes. But Disney is uncurtained, so a free-standing, trapezoidal black set will be installed where the Los Angeles Philharmonic usually sits. The cost: an estimated $40,000.

Plans call for the back wall of the set to be 20 feet high and obliterate three rows of seats behind the stage. But some ticket-holders will still have a rear view, and since no audience has yet seen "Connect Transfer" from behind, even Shen Wei admits to being curious about what his choreography will look like in the round.

Standing on the Disney stage exactly where the dancers will be, veteran lighting designer Jennifer Tipton tells her colleagues that she's concerned about the height of the lights in what she calls "this reflective wooden space" and about their unwanted "top-of-the-head" effect.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Shen Wei Dance Arts: An article about Shen Wei Dance Arts in Wednesday's Calendar section misspelled pianist Gloria Cheng's last name as Chang.

"Anything that would come low enough would block the audience," she says. L.A. Music Center production manager Mark F. O'Donnell talks about adding seven layers to the floor, including "turning AstroTurf upside down so that the dancers can run all the way to the dressing rooms with paint on their feet without slipping."

Paint? Yes, throughout "Connect Transfer," the members of Shen Wei Dance Arts dip socks and mittens into water-based paint -- six colors of it -- so their feet and hands can leave footprints and big circular tracks on the canvas-covered stage floor. In one sequence, paint is applied to the backs of their costumes, so their gymnastic rolling and floor undulations will mark the canvas in a different way.

The production team's mandate is clear: They must leave no mark upon Disney. Nothing can be nailed to any surface, nothing stapled, nothing taped, nothing glued -- and the floor must be safeguarded with a kind of condom so that nothing can possibly stain it. No glove, no love.

Yet beyond the questions of how to hang lights, where to place the wings and how to protect the wood, a larger issue looms. The stage of Disney Hall is obviously the most architecturally distinctive performance space created in Southern California since the Hollywood Bowl shell appeared in the 1920s. Why obliterate it and turn it into just another black box?

"It's really important to me for people to see the floor," the Chinese-born Shen Wei, 38, replies a couple of days later, sitting backstage in Charleston, S.C., after a performance of "Connect Transfer" at the Spoleto Festival USA. "For me, the piece feels better when we do it in a concert hall. The floor is lower, and there is also live music" -- pieces by Kevin Volans, Iannis Xenakis and Gyorgy Ligeti, to be played in L.A. by the Flux Quartet and pianist Gloria Chang.

"Of course, I will do a little adjusting for Disney Hall because of the audience at the sides and back," he says. "But it really doesn't matter where you sit. The production is very simple -- just dancers, music and the floor."

Nigel Redden is general director of the Spoleto Festival and serves New York's Lincoln Center Festival in a similar capacity. He's presented "Connect Transfer" twice now -- once, concert style, at the intimate Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan and once in Charleston at Gaillard Auditorium, a much modified proscenium theater originally about the size of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "I thought it worked in both places very well," Redden says shortly after the last Charleston performance. "But I was much more aware of the dancers painting on the stage at Tully, because it's a more raked house.

"The Disney Hall stage is bigger than Tully's," he says, "and there will be the expansiveness that you could get here," meaning in Gaillard.

As for "Connect Transfer" itself, "It's not the easiest piece, beginning in silence," Redden says. "Audiences don't like silence. But after the coughing fits are over at the beginning, people are absolutely riveted. The only thing I dislike about the piece is that it ends too soon. You just want more at the end."

Like the two pieces Shen Wei presented at the Pavilion three years ago, "Connect Transfer" opens with a slow ceremonial entrance by the dancers, not merely silent but ultra-simple in its movement: just walking and leaning. Soon, however, the 11-member company begins a cycle of windblown swirling -- loose-limbed, gymnastic, gravity-defying -- that invites the audience to experience what Shen Wei has called "the circular, cumulative energies that fuse movement to paint to light to sound in space and time."

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