Getting it rite

On the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s opus, New York-based choreographer Shen Wei will return to Israel with his troupe, Shen Wei Dance Arts, to present his take on ‘The Rite of Spring’ as well as Shen’s own work, ‘Folding.’

The rite of spring (photo credit: Stephanie Berger)
The rite of spring
(photo credit: Stephanie Berger)
In 1913, when Igor Stravinsky unveiled The Rite of Spring, he did so with great trepidation. The creative process had been wrought with miscommunication and confusion. Stravinsky had composed mostly on his own, oblivious to the parallel journey of choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky.
It turned out that Stravinsky’s fears were well-founded.
On May 29, when The Rite of Spring was first presented to a live audience at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, the crowd was so riled by the cutting-edge nature of the music they nearly tore the place down.
It took several years, reworking of the choreography and the music, and a new cast to win this ballet its cherished place in history. In the century since, many choreographers have reinterpreted Stravinsky’s robust composition, including Pina Bausch and Lester Horton.
Since the start of this year, the dance world has enjoyed various celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s opus. This has included performances around the world by dozens of choreographers and dance companies. Keeping up with this thread, New York-based choreographer Shen Wei will return to Israel with his troupe, Shen Wei Dance Arts, to present his take on The Rite of Spring as well as Shen’s seminal work, Folding. The performances will take place at the end of September, as part of the 2013-14 dance season at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.
Shen was born in China to an artistic family. “I think at five or six years old, I already started to live the artist’s life. My family surrounded me with art; it was my environment. I was surrounded by the search for beauty, not necessarily real life. Always searching for beauty makes you passionate about it,” says Shen, in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post.
After completing his studies in both dance and visual arts, Shen became a founding member of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, the first troupe of its kind in China. In 1995, he received a grant to pursue his career in New York. Five years later, he founded Shen Wei Dance Arts.
Just as Shen’s company was about to debut, he was drawn back to China to create a work for the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. Folding immediately caught the eye of dance lovers. Not only was Shen’s take on movement unique, the production value of his pieces left audiences stunned.
In Folding, Shen brought together stark aesthetics with tantalizing precision, creating an unforgettable, emotional work. Dancers clad in long red skirts and alien-esque bald caps skim around the stage, at times seeming to be attached to one another at the hip.
That same year, Shen returned to New York to present Near the Terrace. In both these works, Shen set himself apart from other choreographers with his all-inclusive approach to production. In his program notes, Shen is often credited with the set and costume design, as well as direction and choreography.
“I love everything to do with art. I try to learn everything as much as I can. I try to educate myself all the time. Each dance production I change how I can add other elements. Each work is in a different work, in seeing how to highlight the dance with the visual, what can support the dance production,” he explains.
With his stamp firmly placed on the New York dance community, Shen began to consider his next step. Though he could hardly admit it to himself at the time, all paths seemed to lead in the direction of The Rite of Spring.
“I first heard The Rite of Spring in China in 1989. In the beginning, I never thought I would work with that music,” he recalls. “It is such grand music. By 2001 and 2002, I had kind of naturally developed an attraction to it. I wanted to challenge myself with structures, pure movement, forms, choreography and contact. I thought The Rite of Spring would be a big challenge for me, because it is one of the most challenging compositions around. That is how I started thinking about making this piece.”
Shen’s take on The Rite of Spring features Fazil Say’s minimalist arrangement for piano of Stravinsky’s composition. “When I heard the piano version, what I wanted to achieve became much clearer for me. I wanted to get to the heart of the structure of the music, in order to understand the underlying forms within the music.”
BECAUSE OF the complexity of the music, Shen took great care and a good deal of time when creating The Rite of Spring. “During the time the I made this piece, I had just formed my company. I wasn’t really under pressure to make the piece at any specific time. In 2002 I made the first half. Then, in 2003, I continued to make the second half. It took a total of two years for me to complete this work,” he explained.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about Shen’s production is the seeming simplicity of it. The minimalism of Say’s recording is echoed in the costumes and set. There is no pomp or over-the-top design in Shen’s Rite of Spring – rather a blank slate on which the dancers illustrate the music with their bodies. The company moves as a perfect unit, weaving in and out of group sections. The ease with which the dancers execute the movement, along with the bright lighting and stark stage design, create a sense of purity.
Both The Rite of Spring and Folding have been seen on stages around the world for over a decade. To keep the focus, Shen likes to round everyone up before each and every performance. “Three to five minutes before the curtain opens, I always make a circle. We all get together and hold each other’s shoulders like a sports team.
I tell my dancers to consider why we are here, why we do dance, why we train from when we are little. What the purpose of our life is for this moment. When the audience comes to see us it’s the first time for them.
I want the dancers to remember that. That it’s the meaning of our life and our journey.” Shen Wei Dance Arts will perform at TAPAC from September 25 through 28. For more information, visit