Shen Wei Dance Arts Paints a Different Canvas

By Stephanie Chastain


In the realm of the arts, where nothing is deemed new and everything seems borrowed, choreographer Shen Wei has managed to shock and delight both audiences and critics alike. Steering his relatively adolescent company Shen Wei Dance Arts into a fresh season, this young artist—who identifies as both a choreographer and visual artist– has created an astonishing and sophisticated body of work in six years’ time.

Wei’s company landed squarely on the dance scene at the 2003 American Dance Festival. Shen Wei established himself and piqued the interest of dance enthusiasts with his unconventional interpretation of an already notorious ballet, The Rite of Spring. Covering the stage floor is an enormous black, white and grey mural. the dancers moved as if flung, each gesture clearly articulated, twitching, rapid—the emotion unclear. The dance is cast against a reductive reworking of the Stravinsky score; a four hand piano version by Fazil Say. His reasoning behind the piece was an interest in seeing the ways art intersected with dance; music with movement. For Wei it is often about creating a completely new dance vocabulary, by drawing from Chinese Opera’s gestures, and melding it with contemporary western dance’s principals of composition.

Wei’s background informs his work in the way he integrates elements of his personal history into his pieces. He studied and performed with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company from 1984-1989. Yet, while the influences are present, Wei shies away from defining his work as culturally influenced by any one thing. “My work isn’t about real life, or about being Western or Eastern. I’m exploring the unknown. I’m looking for a new way to communicate.” The transition to modern technique came in the form of the Guangdong Dance Company, the company Wei was with from 1991-94—it was the first of its kind in China. Aside from his theatre and dance background, Wei has a strong connection to the visual arts— his work as a painter wends its way into his self-designed set pieces and costumes. His vision for his dances works its way into every aspect of their production.

In the stunning Folding, Wei’s dancers move with subtle shifts in weight, sculptural and full of grace—almost rooted to the ground by their heavily draped costumes. Their heads encased in strange, beautiful cones that evoke aliens or insects. The dancers move against a luminous backdrop, an enlargement of a famous 18th century Chinese painting.

In Connect Transfer, Wei fuses his visions as choreographer and painter most vividly. Essentially using the dancers and their movements as brushes against a canvas that covers the stage floor, the piece takes the temporal nature of dance and from it emerges an entirely new form of painting.

This March marks the highly anticipated return of Shen Wei Dance Arts to Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Cal Performances, curator of dance companies from around the globe, knows what a dynamic performance to expect. “He is pretty unique,” states Associate Director Hollis Ashby, “His work is truly imagistic. There aren’t many artists whose work isn’t message driven. With Shen Wei there is no narrative; his work appeals to the viewer on a subliminal level.”

It would seem that Wei has achieved a signature style in a short time—one that evades our need to categorize it. At a mere 38 years of age, one can only imagine how that style will expand. And as ever, the Bay Area has an incredible affinity for the new and, it will undoubtedly be a landing place for the company. As Hollis Ashby remarked, “We are looking for someone whose work can’t be replicated.”

Shen Wei Dance Arts performs Friday through Saturday, Mar. 23-24, 8pm at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley Campus. For more information call 510-642-9988 or visit her

This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of In Dance.

Stephanie Chastain is a freelance writer living in San Francisco with her husband Terry and their son Theo.