"In the end, you deliver some of your energy to another human being." —Shen Wei
Our eyes met for half a moment. Smeared in pink from eyes to toenails, she turned her head aside.
That panning motion continued into a casual tumble onto her back, sliding through the tempera paint that covered the floor of the Plexiglas box that contained her. Twirling upon shoulder blades and spine in the bright pigment like an ice dancer, she stopped herself gently by planting a foot into a corner of the box.
I walked away, shouldering through the audience to reach an adjacent gallery where late-Renaissance masterpiece paintings looked down upon the frenetic movements of differently colored dancers on 7-square-foot floor panels. Everyone but the dancers and the paintings was smiling.
This performance of Shen Wei Dance Arts’ Undivided Divided, which concludes tonight, occupies much of the new wing of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Although no stranger to site-specific dance, the American Dance Festival has perhaps never set it on this scale, partnering with the NCMA to bring Shen’s multi-sensory delight to the white galleries of the museum.
It’s an exciting moment for many reasons. First, it’s a lot of fun to see superb choreography in an unconventional space. It’s also exciting to have to deal with the voyeuristic nature of being in a dance audience out in the open.
Just as exciting is how the moment fits into both Shen’s career and the development of the ADF. He’s played a huge role throughout the last decade of the festival. In a way, the arc of his career since his stunning debut at the 2000 ADF, from which his company was formed, matches the arc of the festival itself over the same span, during which now-retired director Charles Reinhart (whose wife Stephanie co-directed from 1993 until her death in 2002) has left after 43 years at the helm.
Both the festival and one of its most closely affiliated choreographers are necessarily transforming, facts made spectacularly evident in Undivided Divided.
The visual arts—specifically painting—have been a part of nearly every piece Shen has staged since his debut. Taking everyone’s breath away—I still have my program from it—Near the Terrace (2000) set Belgian surrealist painter Paul Delvaux’s imagery into motion. Pieces such as Rite of Spring (2003), Connect Transfer (2004), the Re- Triptych (2009) and last year’s ADF premiere Limited States feature dancers applying paint to the stage surface and/or altering an image on the surface through their movement across it. The lasting mark of an arm sweep across the floor became a Shen Wei trademark image.
To this point, visual media other than painting have played less integral and effective roles in Shen’s work, even hinting at a disablingly self-conscious trend. His Tibetan photography, though gorgeous, served as an oddly undermining backdrop to sections of Re-. The static photographs dwarfed the choreography, denying it a comparable dramatic level. The narrative energy of his 2005 Chinese opera Second Visit to the Empress dissipated in his effort to give costumes, set and music their simultaneous due. The movement suffered as something of an afterthought.
Certainly some operatic lessons (Shen left a career as a Chinese opera performer in 1989 to devote himself to choreography) have been learned in Undivided Divided, namely that all of the arts do not need to be equally activated in the performance. Shen treats the museum and its artifacts as a readymade set.
The real transformation, however, comes through the audience’s physical relation to the performance. In Undivided Divided, where no sight line could get even half of the performers into your visual field, you have to move around throughout the 45-minute event. There are 26 dancers in all: half of them are Shen’s company, the other half ADF students. Some of the galleries are narrow, so you must walk inches from the dancers’ floor panels, easily within their paint-smeared reach.
Quickly, people learn how to physically deal with the performance and the space. Within five minutes, everyone was comfortably moving around the designated audience lanes, even strolling down the middle of the main galleries, between the dancers—literally in the middle of the performance.
Dealing with the psychological ramifications of being in the Undivided Divided audience was another matter. There’s no safe anonymity in the pristine and well-lit NCMA. You can’t sit in isolating darkness and privately drool over the gorgeous dancers’ bodies. Reading as naked in skin-toned bodysuits, they’re standing right next to you. You have to figure out whether or not you’re going to look them in the eyes. You have to think about how you look, in the act of viewing, to the other audience members around you.
It’s a little unnerving. You’re faced with inevitable involvement. And that’s just as Shen would have it.
“I want the audience to relax, to sense the art really close to them,” he said after the performance. “I wanted this production to be more for the 21st century, to be what 21st-century performance should be.”
Shen acknowledged a nod to the “total art” of opera in this particular gathering of the museum’s collection and architecture with his choreography and brightly colored set elements. But he remains focused on basic modern objectives rather than on high-art elitism. “We have these five senses. Watching a performance, we should use them all at the same time.”
“Dancers on the stage, and the audience in darkness in the theater seats… that’s a tradition from the 17th century. I wanted to do something for art in our time. Today, you don’t have this tradition where you sit in your seats and watch the show.”
Striding into the galleries without warning, all of the dancers stand on panels to begin the performance. They have two or more one-foot-square Plexiglas cubes to manipulate, as well as a pool of white tempera paint and a pool of some bright color. At first, they play with the cubes, holding them between their knees and rocking, standing on them with one foot, prostrating themselves painfully over their hard edges.
The choreography coheres into ensemble unison floorwork on the panels as the piece reaches its first peak. The movement is smooth and graceful, in statuesque slow motion, until it picks up speed to verge on the frantic. An ambient score of bells, tones, and scratches from Sō Percussion begins about ten minutes into the performance, paralleling the increase in intensity.
As a second calmness settles, the dancers smear through their white paint, recalling Yves Klein pieces of old. They return to individualized motion with something of a game aspect to it, investing their gestures with purpose. As the score switches to manipulated throat singing, the pace again increases. After a peak, everyone falls prone on their backs, palms up.
Seeing paint in play like this is a bit nervy. NCMA conservator Noelle Ocon noted that museum crew had to move the Canova-studio Venus Italica and Marsden Hartley’s Indian Fantasy, among other pieces, safely out of the performers’ radii. Crew members stood at attention throughout the galleries with paper towels in hand, trying to look inconspicuous.
“We’re watching.” Ocon said of the museum’s concern about wet paint and movement coming together. “And it is tempera paint. If that gets on an oil painting, that’s easy to fix. If it gets on a contemporary acrylic painting, it’s not.
All hell breaks loose over the second half of the performance. By now, the audience has figured out their approach and is roaming spaces freely, dropping some inhibitions. I drifted away from the friend I went with, each of us following our separate curiosities.
I was particularly interested in four clear Plexiglas structures at either end of the performance area—two seven-foot clear boxes and two clear, ramp-like structures that dancers stood in a trough at the foot of, reaching up into a pool of paint to smear bodily over the angled face of the ramp.
The dancers in the boxes were fascinating, sliding through their large pool of first pink, then orange paint, like a kid taking a running start to glide over a patch of sidewalk ice. Although the image of a trapped dancer combined with the triple-heartbeat score to lend a slight sense of desperation to the movement, the bright colors and embryonic air of the dancers overcame it. The walls of the box were quickly smeared and glopped with body marks.
I knelt with my face right up against the box to watch a dancer through the palm-hole of his smeared orange and pink handprint. After a minute, his perpetual sliding brought him to me. Placing his hand right over my face, he pushed off to glide away. My heart leapt.
“I was watching you watching me,” Randall Smith, who’s spending his second summer as a student at ADF after finishing his MFA in Dance at the University of California at Irvine, told me after the show. “There was just this natural chemical reaction between us.”
That’s not the only chemical reaction going on. Smith noted that about halfway through the box dance, it heats up enough inside that the tempera releases ammonia fumes. “Halfway through the dance I get a little dizzy,” he laughed.
Smith really invested in Shen’s idea of involvement. During rehearsals he had to get over his own voyeuristic feelings—from inside the box—in order to maintain the emotional neutrality that Shen insists upon. It’s a discipline on the order of the physical demands of the movement. “You almost have to gaze through the body. Your gaze pierces the skin,” Smith explains.
After the final pose was held and the applause lavished upon the performers, I talked with the completely blue, ramp dancer Cassidy Samelian, another ADF student halfway through her BFA at Florida State. She differentiated the strictly choreographed sections from the sections with playful leeway in them, admitting that getting covered with paint was pretty fun despite the stains that persisted for a day or two. I asked her if she’d stay blue for the rest of the month. “I don’t know,” she chuckled, “Yesterday I was green.”
Then she was off to the loading dock to be hosed down. Just another night at the art museum.