By Clare Croft
My first college composition teacher repeatedly urged us to create “organic” choreography: each movement was supposed to have an obvious connection with the last. That teacher would have loved to have Shen Wei in her class. Shen’s work manages to be at once careful, yet daring; tiny, yet long.
Shen Wei is everywhere this summer: Jacob’s Pillow, Lincoln Center and ADF. Based on his newest work “Connect Transfer,” which received its New York premiere Wednesday, he deserves every engagement and more. The piece evolved over an hour and ten minutes, dancers rising from floor-based patterns to abrupt jumps and turns, but movements were perfectly strung together. I found myself thinking nothing other than what happened next could have happened. Not only did the movement flow together, but Shen, who says in program notes, “I wasn’t taught the arts separately, so I don’t separate them in my work,” makes dance, music and painting one. Whether the choreography was accompanied by the FLUX quartet on strings or Stephen Gosling on piano, the musicians' fingers prompted the dancers, especially the staccato plinks of the piano during more spastic sections at the work’s end.
Visually, “Connect Transfer” has a Jackson Pollock air. Dancers slide across the white canvas floor, their paint-drenched hands and bodies leaving spiral tracings of their movements. The swish of bodies against canvas brilliantly ties together the three elements (dance, music, and painting). The dancers’ movement generates a musical accompaniment; their bodies living paintbrushes.
“Connect Transfer” begins as, one by one, dancers take their turns at an exquisitely delicate game of Twister, walking center stage to perform variations of lunges, then carefully placing their hands against the canvas, foreshadowing the importance of the hand on canvas that will come once the painting begins. The solos become trios and duets; bodies sparingly entangle.
The reverie breaks as a spider-like female dancer sweeps across the floor, then another dancer follows, leaving arcs of black paint behind. The long floor-based section creates a watery atmosphere; the dancers look as though they are moving within a mother’s womb. I felt Shen’s movement was at its best in the gymnastic, smooth choreography for the floor. Shen, who performs two solos during “Connect Transfer,” displays amazing flexibility in his shoulders, an aptitude he transfers into this section of the choreography. Skimming shoulder rolls and sweeping torso bends swoosh against the floor in an endless flow. There’s very little punctuation to the phrasing, but it never grows boring, perhaps because the fluidity was usually juxtaposed against the awkward partnering, particularly a downstage duo moving incrementally along each other’s bodies. Partnering throughout “Connect Transfer,” looks contorted, largely because the dancers’ heads often poke out at odd angles, but Shen somehow gives the contortions a sense of length.
If the first section happens in the womb, in the next segment, the dancers resemble off-balance toddlers, exploring their world with outstretched, almost flailing limbs. Next the dancers skip in a pony-step, then begin eating up the stage space with leaps and turns.
Moving from section to section, Shen makes soft, demarcating transitions (a rare skill), so the work has a cohesive feel, yet travels through a variety of moods and movement styles. Shen’s first solo serves as one subtlety beautiful transition. He walks straight to center stage from the wings, then turns abruptly to stand downstage, left of center. His angular, no nonsense walk leads into a curving solo where his arms and hands softly stroke the air. In another striking transition, two dancers meet center stage, torsos pressed stomach to stomach, then each makes a soft body wave from shoulder to ankle, ending with their feet crossed and dangling. The body wave stands out amidst Shen’s very traditional modern vocabulary, but the softness and delicacy of its performance, as well as the stillness that bookends it, make it an effective transition.
“Connect Transfer” ends with another solo by Shen, which he finishes, then bows. All of the company’s bows, like Shen’s, become part of the choreography, each dancer entering with a different color of paint on him or her, rolling and swirling about, finishing their part of the painting, then bowing. Only here, since each of the 11 dancers enter separately, does the work feel a bit long.