American Dance Festival 2015 Review

By Dilip Barman

The 82nd annual American Dance Festival (ADF) opened with Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Durham Performing Arts Center in Durham, NC, June 11-13. Not only is Shen Wei an internationally known choreographer and dancer famous for, among many other things, choreographing the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics, but he is intimately connected with ADF. He was invited to present dance at ADF in 1995 and, at ADF in 2000, founded Shen Wei Dance Arts. For some years now, audiences have enjoyed seeing the troupe regularly each season.

In addition to choreographing and dancing, Wei is a visual artist. The roughly one and a half hour program started with Untitled No. 12-2, an ADF-commissioned dance. Eleven of Shen Wei’s large abstract landscape paintings were projected while the dancers constituted a twelfth, dynamic dance painting.

The idea of dancers interacting with projected or placed art is not new, but the intimacy of the interaction in this piece, particularly with the knowledge that both art forms emanate from the same mind, is powerful. The dancers essentially united with the qi, or life force, of the scenes depicted and added a moving dimension to the landscapes. The music, Echoes from the Gorge (Chou Wen-Chung), was intriguing and well suited to the projected and performed art.

I always look forward to seeing what Shen Wei brings to the stage each year; it is ever-changing and innovative, yet has his unique mark. While Untitled No. 12-2 certainly continues to deliver the promise that brings audiences in many countries to his performances, I was left with some questions.

The paintings themselves clearly had the power to be exhibited and enjoyed in their own right – and they have been. I wish that I could have absorbed their impact more, but can’t say whether a longer projection, more separation from the dancers (but not so much to void the nice union that was formed), or some other technique could have satisfied my desire. The lighting could have been lower key to increase the contrast and drama of the painting projections. Finally, I found the piece a bit short and almost incomplete. But, after all, isn’t all art, to some extent, incomplete, pending our reflection and ultimate aesthetic?

When the audience walked back into the theatre as the intermission was coming to an end, it was met with five helium balloons of various shapes floating in front of the stage with writing and diagrams. The diagrams reminded me of my days playing high school football, where we would study typical plays of teams we would be matched with, and plan our reactions. It also brought to mind scientific notation and formulae.

The second and last piece that the balloons framed, Map, was set to the rhythmic and intoxicating music of minimalist Steve Reich (selections from The Desert Music). Set to a chorus of 27 voices and orchestra, it partnered perfectly with the spirited pace and energy of the dance.

The dancers were framed by not just the balloons, but by blackboard-like writing set as a backdrop to the piece. The notation brought to mind mathematics or perhaps physical chemistry. It was only later during the question and answer session that Shen Wei revealed the genius behind both the balloons and the backdrop inscriptions. As he worked on choreography for the piece, initially done in 2005 and now refreshed in 2015, he saved his notes. Those notes were what we were seeing – those weren’t for football players or mathematicians or scientists – they were of the dance itself!

For me, the most appealing part of Map was the subtle asynchrony of the dancers. This was absolutely no amateur performance with dancers not fully understanding their steps. It was, rather, beautifully orchestrated with, as was discussed in the post-performance discussion, different accents in movements. Going back to my association with scientific formulae, this was akin to fractals and seeming imperfections in nature.

The remarkable creativity and unique ways of seeing and presenting concepts that Shen Wei brings keeps his work fresh and audiences thirsting for more. Dances like Map, as well as Untitled No. 12-2, appeal to audiences of all ages (my daughter, who graduated the day before from Kindergarten, loved Map and seemed to be as touched by it as my wife and I were) and have depth to allow one to enjoy them at different levels. I know that I would love seeing Map many more times; I strongly suspect that if I could see Untitled No. 12-2 again, I would like it more and better come to terms with its ethos.

At press time, I was about to see the second troupe of the season, Bodytraffic. Founded in 2007, by 2013 it had received a number of international accolades, including Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch”. Among their collaborations has been one with a sculptor, and an opening night gala of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Based on preview videos, they offer dance theatre set to strong, modern rhythms.

Their work at ADF includes an ADF-commissioned world premiere. They are scheduled to perform three dances. And at Midnight, the Green Bride Floated Through the Village Square… is described by the choreographer Barak Marshall as a morality tale based on a story from his childhood in Yemen, and set mainly to Jewish love songs and hymns. Once Again, Before You Go, the second dance, and O2Joy, the third dance, are to be performed after an intermission. The June 14-16, 2015 performances were to be performed at Duke University.

American Dance Festival continues through July 25, 2015. By the end of the season, over sixty performances by thirty-one troupes will have been staged. Visit to get details on ticketing and schedules for the remaining shows.

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