Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Joyce Theater on Sunday, October 1.
Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring nearly started a riot. The savage, inelegant steps shocked the audience, but how else could Nijinsky have interpreted Stravinsky’s gloriously primitive work? With its driving yet uneven rhythms and crushingly dissonant harmonies, Rite of Spring doesn’t lend itself to dainty arabesques and pirouettes.
Sadly, Nijinsky’s notorious choreography has been lost to history, but contemporary choreographer Shen Wei captures Stravinsky’s brutal work beautifully. For the dancing is beautiful—not graceful, certainly, but energetic and athletic and invigorating.
The work starts slowly with the dancers merely scuttling across the stage with small, rapid steps, yet by the time the music builds to its climax, the steps are downright acrobatic: vaults off the floor, deep bends in the back, wild spins like stray tops. What I enjoy most, though, is the way Shen Wei uses the arms. The dancers manipulate their arms from shoulder sockets to finger tips. Some of the movements look weirdly unnatural (I spent several minutes trying to replicate the way they shifted their shoulders and still failed to recreate the motion), but they fit the music’s driving rhythms and feral nature.
Instead of full orchestra, Shen Wei uses a recording of Stravinsky’s own arrangement of Rite for four-hand piano. The arrangement (surprisingly effective considering how striking the original orchestration is) underlines the work’s percussive quality, and Shen Wei’s severe choreography takes advantage of that percussiveness with abrupt stops and starts and leaps.
The music for the ensemble’s second selection, Re-, couldn’t be more different. Ani Choying Dolma, a Buddhist nun, sings traditional chants on stage, her evocative, monophonic vocal line a welcome reprieve from the tempestuous harmonies of Rite.
At the opening of Re-, some kind of confetti lies on the floor in a perfect geometric figure; the four dancers scatter it with their steps, and it hangs in the air like thick snowflakes. Where Rite is aggressive, Re- is contemplative, but Shen Wei’s aesthetic is fairly constant between the two. The arm movements, for example, are more measured in Re-, but they use the same flexible shoulder joints, the same fluid pinwheels.
The program might have become slightly repetitive, but fortunately, Ani Choying’s evocative, emotional voice makes everything fresh. For her, I imagine, it’s not so much a performance as a devotion, and her pure intensity invests the whole work with shimmering ardor, a sincerity that transcends physical gestures. By collaborating with Ani Choying, Shen Wei takes physical movements and makes them gorgeously, vividly, powerfully spiritual.