I saw a dance performance tonight at the Esplanade by Shen Wei, a Chinese choreographer now based in New York. The first piece was called The Rite of Spring, after the Stravinsky piece.

The choreographer describes the piece as, essentially, an exploration of the music itself:

When I first heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in China in 1989, I was enthralled by the rich and evocative texture of the score. Over the next 12 years I continued to develop a creative interest in the piece, finally beginning in-depth research of the music in the winter of 2001. I was further inspired when I heard Fazil Say’s performance of the two-piano version of the score…

The Stravinsky score is constructed with both technical complexity and narrative passion. However, in keeping with my interest in abstraction, it is only the melodic and rhythmic qualities of the music, rather than the story it tells, which inform the choice of movement vocabulary…”

Shen Wei’s roots are in Chinese Opera, and he’s used that foundation to develop a unique physical vocabulary. I’m not sure how to describe it exactly, except perhaps to say it involves a separation of upper and lower body – each following and creating a variation on the other – unlike anything I’d seen before. To pull this off, his dancers had to be physically amazing, and they were.

The second piece was called Folding, and it was much more of a visual tableaux than a physical performance. The backdrop was a blown-up Chinese painting of a fish, and the stage was framed at the edges by billowing columns of white cloth.

Accompanied by droning Tibetan chants, the dancers emerged into the painting very slowly, two-at-a-time, one holding the other. Their torsos and faces were painted white, and they wore thick skirts of black or red cloth.

The most stunning moment came at the end. With the stage nearly dark, the dancers gathered in the center, turned and walked together toward the back. At the back of the stage, they began to rise very slowly – almost imperceptably at first – into the air. Until they all seemed to be floating.