Q&A: Choreographer Shen Wei

Shen Wei's Near the Terrace. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Shen Wei’s Near the Terrace. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Choreographer Shen Wei on his creative process, honesty in movement and his company’s upcoming performance at the Winspear.

Dallas — Painter. Visual Artist. Dancer. Choreographer. But the title Shen Wei cherishes the most is that of “human being.” “I am a human being who loves art,” he says. His humility and honesty is embedded in all his work which has been mesmerizing audiences around the world since starting Shen Wei Dance Arts (SWDA) in 2000. Wei will be bringing his vibrant imagination and exquisite movement quality to Dallas on June 19 at the Winspear Opera House, ending TITAS’ season on a very high note.

The evening will feature two of Wei’s earlier works: Map (2005) and Near the Terrace (2001). With music by Steve Reich, Map explores a range of movement principles, including rotation, bouncing, internal isolation, internal circular movement and internal individual movement. On the other end of the spectrum is Near the Terrace with its slow controlled movements inspired by a series of paintings by Belgian artist Paul Delvaux. An exhibition of Wei’s own paintings is also on display at the Crow Collection of Asian Art from through Sept. 29.

Born to a couple of Chinese Opera professionals in China’s Hunan province, Wei was trained from youth in Chinese Opera performance, traditional ink painting and calligraphy. He was a performer with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company from 1984 to 1989. He also studied Western visual art which lead him to modern dance. In 1991 he co-founded the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, the first of its kind in China. Wei moved to New York City in 1995 to study with the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab and founded Shen Wei Dance Arts 5 years later. To date SWDA has performed in 138 cities in 28 countries and on four continents.

Wei has commissioned works for American Dance Festival, Het Muziektheater Amsterdam, Lincoln Center Festival, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Hong Kong’s New Vision Arts Festival, to name a few. He has also earned numerous accolades, including a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship (2007), the U.S. Artists Fellow award and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He also choreographed the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. In 2010, he was a named a winner of the Meadows Prize at Southern Methodist University, where he worked with the dance students.

TheaterJones caught up with Shen Wei to talk about his creative process, blending Eastern and Western dance styles and what audiences can expect at his Dallas performance.

TheaterJones: You have many titles: choreographer, dancer, painter, director. What do you see yourself as?

Shen Wei: I think it’s a human being who loves art. That’s it.

Is painting your first passion?

I have loved painting since I was a little boy. I remember being at home by myself painting at 5 or 6 years old. No one really taught me how to paint. And that has been non-stop up till now. I feel that painting is one of those things I will do no matter where my life takes me.

What inspired you to start dancing?

Like painting I started dancing as a young boy. It fits my personality. In China I was born in the year of monkey which means one who likes to be really active and physical. I do have that monkey side in me. I like to express myself through physical movement. I am naturally coordinated and can learn things fast physically. I never thought many years later I would still be doing the two things that I love.

What motivated you to move to the U.S. in 1995?

There comes a point in your life when you hunger for more learning and more exposure. As an artist and human being I wanted to grow more and I knew I could do that in New York City. I wanted to discover everything I didn’t know and to grow more.

How was it adapting to New York City and the Western dance culture?

Before I came to the U.S. I spent many years studying modern dance and the Western culture through visual and performing arts, but you can only learn so much from books and teachers. It’s so different when you are living it. It took me many years to really understand the roots of Western culture and New York City.

Was it always in the cards to start your own company?

I never planned to start a company or to be a choreographer in the U.S. In some ways you think things just suddenly change. But in other ways it’s because you are concentrating so hard on doing well for yourself and educating yourself that things just happen naturally. Being a freelance artist in the city in not easy. But somehow things changed and my work developed to a certain place where people started welcoming it.

What is it about your work that makes it so relatable to mass audiences?

Photo: Stephanie Berger
Photo: Stephanie Berger

I think it’s my focus, passion and research. I only do one or two projects a year. I do this because I want to be reliving the work I am doing which means I do spend a lot adjusting everything and conducting my research. I never do two projects at one time. This way I have nothing distracting me from my work.  My traveling, education and childhood has also helped me understand the sensitivities of both Eastern and Western cultures. This has made me who I am today. My travels have lead me to communicate with many different people and that helps me to grow and appreciate the different cultures and human beings. So, my work may in some ways relates to people on a spiritual level, but it’s hard to say. I am just trying to touch you by communicating honestly through movement.

Can you tell me about the process you went through when creating Map and Near the Terrace?

Both pieces are earlier works and were built in different periods of my life. So, if you experience the whole evening you will see how modern dance can be so different and unique in its own ways. Map is more active, musical and abstract. It’s about discovering new ways of moving and what happens to our movement when universal elements such as gravity are introduced. Near the Terrace showcases the human form and touches more on the spiritual side of human nature. It’s a slower, more visually appealing number.

This Q&A was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

 

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