Shen Wei in Residence

April 1, 2009

Welcome to the jungle: Shen Wei, in red shirt with back to camera shares Angkor Wat photos with dancers

Photos by Michael Zirkle

Aligned in a neat, single row, the dancers face a mostly empty Reynolds Theater. The audience members who are there wait patiently for them to begin again. The music starts and the dancers bend, torsos and limbs tortuous and twirling, moving slowly into what appears to be a vine's tendril, or the twisted trunk of a tree. In front of them, at a small table, sits Shen Wei, choreographer and founder of Shen Wei Dance Arts (SWDA), watching with a critical eye.

 Shen, a 2007 MacArthur fellow who garnered worldwide acclaim for his role on a creative team that choreographed the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, came to Duke for a two-week-long residency to work on a portion of his upcoming dance triptych, Re-. Shen's roots in Durham run deep. He and his company have been impressing audiences at the American Dance Festival (ADF), hosted annually at Duke in the summer, for the past eight years.

Welcome to the jungle:Interpretation of temple's tangled roots in Re- (Part 2).

Welcome to the jungle:Interpretation of temple's tangled roots in Re- (Part 2). Photos by Michael Zirkle

Over the course of the residency, Shen and members of the company conducted master classes in cooperation with the Dance Program, participated in discussions on his traditional and modern influences and the meaning of his art, opened a number of his company's rehearsals to curious onlookers, and taught an auditorium full of local middle-school students about the cultures that have had an impact on his life and work.

Culminating with two nights of performances featuring parts one and two of Re-, the residency was an opportunity for Shen to fine-tune his company's timing, spacing, and motions. Sponsored by Duke Performances in association with ADF and with the support of the Provost's Council for the Arts, the shows played to sold-out crowds.

Re- (Part 1) was influenced by Shen's trip to Tibet and his interactions with monks and the other Buddhist inhabitants. (At a panel discussion in the John Hope Franklin Center, he joked, "My mother always worried I would be a monk.") The dancers breathe shallowly as they imagine the thin air of the high steppe. They create and destroy an approximation of a Buddhist mandala, a kind of temporary sacred space, moving in continuous, circular motions, inspired by the worldview of Tibetans Shen encountered on his travels.

During the residency, Shen worked to put the finishing touches on Re- (Part 2), inspired by a visit he made to Angkor Wat, a complex of ancient Cambodian temples where enormous jungle trees have grown into the stone walls. There on vacation, Shen was not expecting to create a dance piece about the experience. But after returning to his home in New York, he began to create the movements, instructing members of his company with photographs of detailed stone inlays and massive roots overtaking temples.

Following the residency, SWDA returned to touring. It also is working to complete the third part of the program, which Shen began working on during the residency. Inspired by the Silk Road, the dance is slated to premiere in its entirety at ADF this summer.