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What happens when artists and presenters show fragmentary material before it's time? Sometimes, audiences simply leave.

Little dance and much talk with Shen Wei 

Towers of babble

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Shen Wei works with his dance troupe at Duke University's Page Auditorium during the company's two-week artist residency. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Shen Wei Dance Arts
Reynolds Industries Theater
Jan. 23-24

The importance of artistic process is being emphasized in a number of venues these days. Sunday night, the Lab at Burning Coal Theatre presented a staged reading of Forensic, a thought-provoking one-act in development by regional writer Richard Krawiec. At UNC, the group of curated works in development that director Joseph Megel is focusing on this year even bears the name "The Process Series." Its latest offering, Trojan Barbie, a controversial merging of The Trojan Women with present-day narratives on the fate of women in war zones, gave playwright Christine Evans one last chance to hear and see revisions play out in a staged reading before a March world premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. Given the potency of that work, we'll be in Gerard Hall next weekend when the series hosts Torkwase Dyson's Greenolicious.

Works like these prove that, when artists and presenters judiciously pull back the curtain before a work is fully finished, audiences leave with refreshing new insights into art forms and creative evolution. A more cautionary lesson, however, comes from last weekend's stand by Shen Wei Dance Arts at Duke's Reynolds Theater: What happens when artists and presenters show fragmentary material before it's time? Sometimes, audiences simply leave.

The walkouts came during a filibuster that filled 50 minutes of the evening's second half, after the company opened with a revised version of Re- (Part 1), Shen Wei's meditation on a trip to Tibet that premiered here at the American Dance Festival in 2006. After a five-minute curtain speech by Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances, Shen Wei and his company's executive director, Brett Egan, spent 45 minutes exploring, at extensive length, the merits of the works we weren't going to see that night, despite assurances to the contrary that were still up on the Duke Performances Web site at showtime on Friday and Saturday.

The audience stayed engaged with the choreographer's real-life experiences for the first five to 10 minutes. But as the audience who paid for a dance concert began to realize they were in for a lecture/ demonstration instead—and one a lot heavier on the lecture part—the walkouts began.

Conditions were worsened by the stultifying heat in a packed Reynolds Theater. But it pains me to note they were also disadvantaged by Shen Wei's limitations in conversational English. Clearly, Shen Wei is an artistic genius of the first order. We now know that insisting on him filling an hour with talk about his work does not present it in its best light, at least to English-speaking audiences. Though projected slides of his visits to Tibet, Angkor Wat and China punctuated the conversation with needed visual relief, it was frustrating when none of his admittedly striking photographic images remained visible for more than three seconds.

After that extended conversation, we were treated to less than 10 minutes of dance itself: three disconnected fragments from Part 2 and Part 3. Without appropriate tech or context, these sections revealed little. As for the dance we did see, in the first part of the evening, it must be said that at this point Part I is in danger of falling into a growing category: works that are not entirely improved by revision. Now scored for twice the number of dancers featured in its 2006 premiere, the current version has lost much of the austerity that characterized the original. The intimacy of the original opening has been largely sacrificed with the wholesale changes in music and movement.

And where the simplicity of the original visual design—a series of circles set within squares—suggested the form of a Buddhist mandala while letting the audience complete the metaphor, now the mandala formed of white and colored confetti features overt references to Taoism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism in its four quadrants—in a work about Tibet—losing more, perhaps, than mere subtlety in the process.

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