Dallas — One by one, dancers unleash huge balloons over the stage of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, and thereby set into motion a slow, unhurried dance that meanders, pulls back on itself, surges forward, loops and rebounds. Performed Thursday night by Shen Wei Dance Arts, presented by TITAS, the opening work Map unfurled with such a gravity of purpose that the effect was hypnotic.
On a bare stage with the wings visible hangs a large black backdrop covered with chalky symbols, numbers and letters – a kind of modern hieroglyphics, with images marked out or erased. Matching the complexity of the images, the dancers wear outfits on different shades of grey, split at different angles and at different lengths. The slight variations mark them as individuals, while the color scheme suggests uniformity.
Map opens in dim light with 10 figures barely visible. They move like sea creatures, rolling on the floor, waving an arm, lifting hips, and flipping limbs around in one fluid motion. Once upright, they move with stiff, flat feet, arms to the side, everyone going in different directions. Each section had its own dynamic, the action contained in the opening “Route,” but becoming increasingly freewheeling, with each section given a motif that expands over and over.
Steve Reich’s minimalist music (sections from The Desert Music) suits the repetitive movement. Dancers rock back and forth, arms swinging loosely; roll over backward and shoot up; crawl; slide up on another’s back; and sway forward and back as though tethered by buoys that are soon—like the balloons—unleashed. The last section, “All Maps + Continual Flow,” is one long mesmerizing finale. Dancers fan out into two groups and swirl and sweep and bob like so many fish, coming close to each other and then swimming in another direction. If this sounds like something Pilobolus would do, it’s not, for we never forget that these are real people, dancing as smoothly and effortlessly as fish.
In a drastic mood shift, Shen Wei’s Near the Terrace embraced the surreal. Like the French choreographer Maguy Marin, who took inspiration from writer Samuel Beckett for her masterpiece May B, Shen Wei took his inspiration from the surrealist Belgian painter Paul Delvaux. Except for the chalky white faces and the element of fantasy and the absurd, there the similarity between Near the Terrace and May B ends.
Near the Terrace unfolded in a dreamlike pace made all the more dreamlike by a wash of pale blue light and a white staircase that runs from one end of the stage to the other. The dancers emerge like ghosts. While the men wear loose, cream-colored pants and shirts, the women are naked from the waist up. Their very long and tattered skirts spread out like trails of strewn paper, and their matted hair adds to their disheveled look.
Watching the dance is like watching many paintings of similar images emerge, change shape, disappear, and come back at a slightly different angle. At one point a woman lies stretched out on the staircase while a man stands motionless high above and far away while a second woman gently lowers a friend to the ground. It ends as all 15 dancers move across the ground or the staircase like a swell, bodies tilted far back and gradually tilted far forward. Then one by one they walk up the stairs and disappear. The dance was quiet and serene as a floating cloud.
» Read our interview with Shen Wei
» Shen Wei's paintings are on exhibit at the Crow Collection of Asian Art through Sept. 29
» 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.