On the large, square studio, a dancer flips her leg in a circle, drops, crawls, and rolls back up, always moving in a linear pattern from one edge of the studio to the other. Then she repeats the movement. Then again. And again. And again. Maybe 12 times in all, and still Shen Wei is not satisfied.
For over an hour, this same grueling repeat, repeat continues, with the first dancer replaced by yet another, until all nine dancers have run though the gauntlet.
They are in the early stages of creation of a work called "The New You," which will premiere Wednesday in Southern Methodist University's Meadows Dance Ensemble's 2012 Spring Dance Concert.
Shen Wei, winner of the Meadows Prize in 2010, is on campus for three weeks to whip out in short order what seems to be a daunting project. For it is not just a dance, but a multimedia work that includes two musicians, two actors, two art students and a computing-projection student. And all of it is created from scratch, with only the framework of numbers and letters to go on.
More precisely, each number has its own "location" in space, and each dancer has created her own vocabulary of movement for each number. To add to the challenge, Shen Wei asked each dancer to write her signature in cursive, and let the physical flow of the signature influence the way she danced the letter of her name.
While this may be the idea, in rehearsal it looks as thought Shen Wei does not like sloppy writing, and if some dancers have very short names and others very long, you would never guess. The looping, falling, rolling and dropping all look remarkably familiar, and Shen Wei is pitiless when it comes to how a dancer is to initiate a particular movement.
After this ordeal, the next phase includes musicians and an actor calling out "North," Northeast," "South," and the like, and each dancer then leaps, or spirals, or runs to the assigned destination. It could be chaotic, but isn't, as we see dancers making their way in a grid pattern with a rush of energy.
Apparently, the dance becomes more complicated, but later artists will fling and smear paint on a numbered Plexiglas sheet, dancers will wear cameras that project images of those around them, and each dancer's name with be projected in a particular color.
"I want to view what is going on in our time and our culture," Shen Wei had noted in an ealier interview. "I am interested in all art forms—music, dance, theater, the visual arts, and since [Meadows School of the Arts] is an art school, why not share with every field?"
"I'm not here to create a masterpiece," Shen Wei explains. "It's not to put on a show—it's about a process."
He compares the experience of working with students to working with dancers in his own company in New York, now 12 years old. "In New York, there is a lot of competition, and you have to be fast, you can't relax. What I want students to know is that here is no one to help you there, and only the best and quickest can survive. I try to be patient with students, because they have less experience."
Then he adds, "The students here work hard."
To judge by the two-hour rehearsal I just witnessed, they certainly do.
The program will also includes Adam Hougland's Five Preludes and jazz dance artist Danny Buraczeski's Song Awakened.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.
Here's a video of one of Shen Wei's previous works: