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Dance as fluid as water, but why is the pond black?

The dark drapes don't flatter Disney Hall at all, but the movement is glorious in Shen Wei's `Connect Transfer.'

June 25, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

What's the opposite of a site-specific performance event? Shen Wei Dance Arts at Walt Disney Concert Hall, that's what.

Dance companies routinely perform in ancient amphitheaters at summer festivals, losing nothing when seen against the weathered stones.

What's more, adventuresome choreographers such as Merce Cunningham often embrace alternative spaces, adapting to their unusual layouts and ambiences.

But Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei insists that his "Connect Transfer" be performed against black drapes, so black drapes curtained the Disney stage platform over the weekend, doing nothing for the hall architecturally and revealing nothing about its potential as a dance venue.

A pity. Shen Wei is obviously flexible enough to change the number of dancers in this one-act abstraction and his own role in it from one tour engagement to the next -- so the central experience of "Connect Transfer" might prove just as impressive if reimagined for Disney's honey-colored wood as it did Friday inside the black alcove built to accommodate him.

That central experience has little to do with the company members periodically painting big swirls on the canvas floor with gooey mittens and socks and (in one passage) their backs while they dance. Never dominating the work until the choreographed curtain calls, the floor-painting passages represent a highly promotable sideshow, like some of the set and costume novelties (aluminum insect arms, ship's masts etc.) that regularly turn up on the UCLA Live dance series.

Painting the floor certainly gets your attention, but it would seem just as interesting -- and irrelevant -- in nearly every other engagement of the Dance at the Music Center season.

No, the big news about "Connect Transfer" concerns Shen Wei's reinvention of the dance vocabulary: the way the movement impetus flows from any point in his dancers' bodies to any other, bypassing every convention of dance-as-steps or choreography as a predominantly vertical statement.

You get all that in the very boring ceremonial entrance -- a postmodern cliche to which Shen Wei seems hopelessly addicted. (He created two more examples for the pieces his company presented at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 2004.) Everyone marches onto the stage as grim-faced Soldiers of the Dance, bracing against the floor (first individually, later in small clusters) in positions that might be snapshots of the swirling, nonstop choreography that begins about 10 minutes later when Sara Procopio and Andrew Cowan actually dance, tearing into the movement hungrily as if they've been starving.

Before she leaves the stage, Procopio convulsively dives, rolls, slides, twists, sprawls and spins down to and up from the floor -- weightlessly, almost bonelessly -- looking a little like a fish out of water, perhaps, but more like someone who loves whirling between heaven and Earth at every possible angle.

Soon everyone joins the party, occasionally reverting to structural rectitude (formal lineups, for example, or unison mincing steps), and sometimes forming sculptural chains that contrast with freer solos and duets on other parts of the stage. You can read these sections as expressions of the great obsessive theme in recent Chinese dance: social order versus individual freedom. Or you can simply allow yourself to be engulfed by the energy, skill and re-conception of theatrical dancing on view.

Far upstage Friday, pianist Gloria Cheng and the Flux Quartet played scores by Kevin Volans, Iannis Xenakis and Gyorgi Ligeti: difficult scores that challenged the musicians and the audience alike, though the hall's acoustics made everything sound richer and more seductive than you might expect. Shen Wei's use of music isn't especially incisive, so the relationship between sight and sound in "Connect Transfer" ultimately seems as arbitrary and coincidental as the relationship between his temporary, curtained-off choreographic area and the soaring architectural space of Disney Hall.

But, oh, that glorious fish-out-of-water virtuosity. What an achievement, and what an inspiration for future growth.

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