Many may not remember the name Rose Mary Woods, but as Richard Nixon’s secretary she was responsible for an early case of multitasking that had unforeseen consequences. Woods claimed that the famed and mysterious 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes was due, at least in part, to her inadvertently trying to answer a phone while she was working on the tapes.
A number of recent studies reveal that multi-tasking using technology can have adverse impacts on human behavior and performance, including reduced efficiency and concentration, memory loss, increased stress, and impulsive behavior.
Shen Wei, the Chinese born choreographer and visual artist, and his 11-member company, Shen Wei Dance Arts, took on the particular relationship of impulse and technology in a multi-media work, “Limited States” at Meany Hall this past Thursday evening. Mr. Shen is himself something of a multi-tasker, credited not only with the concept and choreography, but the video and animation of last week's show, of which he is also a co-creator of the costume and lighting design.
The 42-year old Chinese-born Shen has been based in New York City since 1995, and founded his own company there in 2001. As a young man he was trained in Chinese opera, a traditional form of popular musical theater with many regional variations, and in 1991 became a founding dancer and choreographer of Guangdong Modern Dance Company, China’s first troupe of this type. One can see western concert dance influences in his work, but I was most struck by how reminiscent certain portions of his latest work were of the American dance and performance art world of the 1960s and early 70s.
“Limited States,” a 75-minute piece without intermission, is arranged into three main sections; the first and last for the entire group, and the middle a solo for founding company dancer Sara Procopio. Meany staff informed me that “the piece explores the distraction of technology and how our attention is dissipated to the point that we surrender impulse control.”
Shen’s piece is an abstract series of movement and visual sequences not seemingly connected to one another by any sense of flow or cohering concept. Almost workmanlike, the dancers moved from one to another. Taken together these sequences presented an arbitrariness that may have been the choreographer’s intent. Without any apparent connection to one another, they become more distracted impulse than considered choice.
The tone for the evening is set in the opening of the first act, when an exquisite video of dancer Sarah Lisette Chiesa is projected on the back scrim of the stage. She dances in place using Shen’s characteristic lexicon — an undulant torso moving in multiple directions, her arms and legs reaching out in various planes, giving the movement a decidedly off-kilter look.
Quietly joining her projected image on-stage is the live company, which begins its own movement as she fades to the vanishing point. This opening sequence presents the strongest element of Shen’s multi-media vision — his ability to balance the presence of live dance and projected images.
All too often in this situation the live performance is less well served. Given the choice, our eyes seem to be more naturally drawn to a moving projected image than on-stage dancers. Shen deftly uses a number of lighting and staging devices that do not demand that the viewer choose between the two, placing emphasis at times on one or the other, at times balancing the two harmoniously.
Shen clearly likes to work on a large, dramatic scale, bringing a number of theatrical elements together in his “dance art.” He was a principal choreographer of the spectacular opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and at the end of last year completed a series of performances at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory in New York City.
For the company’s Meany performances much of the usual side masking was removed to open up the stage, allowing Shen as large a canvas as possible for his choreography and the projected visuals. A particular favorite was a dancer’s body emerging over time from a roiling starry-like black and white firmament. Temporary side wings, allowing for dancer entry and exits disappeared during the course of the work’s final section.
One can assume that the Chinese Opera training of Shen’s youth contributed to his total theater vision and showmanship. With its music, elaborate facial make-up and costumes, physicality, and literary and musical traditions, this ancient form is a brilliant platform to inspire an inventive young artist, especially in the dynamic culture of China in the latter part of the 20th century.
When Shen first came to the United States, he was a student at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab. Alwin Nikolais, who had passed away a few years earlier, was a pioneer in the blending of movement and the visual arts. He also wrote his own electronic scores. Some of the vision of Nikolais likely still resonated in the Dance Lab’s teachings and one can see them inspiring the young Chinese dancer.
Nikolais’ long-time partner, Murray Louis, the other half of the Lab’s name, was himself an inspired creator of movement, still working professionally at the time. He was also a dancer who had extraordinary control of his body, particularly torso isolations, some of which seem to appear, once or twice removed, in Shen’s movement vocabulary.
The American Dance Festival, in Durham, North Carolina also nurtured Shen. It was there he received several commissions, and would have seen a number of our country’s leading dance troupes.
It is not necessarily a criticism to write that Shen’s piece is reminiscent of things done in the 60s and 70s. At 42, he is far too young to have seen this work live. As Paul Taylor was supposed to have said in response to criticism for working with music used before by other dancemakers: “Well, it was new to me.”
Unlike Taylor, Shen uses these theatrical devices in a way that does not give them new or added dimension. A near nude female dancer rolling around in paint and leaving ‘designs’ on a white surface (Procopio in her solo section) was a staple of 1960s performance art, as was using a spoken word sound score as accompaniment for a stage sequence that employed everyday movement or tasks.
Sounding absurd outside of their context, these ‘scores’ might include recordings made from old and new radio and television broadcasts and commercials, telephone calls, vinyl discs, or readings of newspaper stories. In Shen’s case, we hear recorded weather reports from NOAA for several geographic locales as the dancers perform a ritualized pedestrian activity on stage — carrying clear plastic containers of water up and down a step unit. Calibrated lines with numbers, like those in a police-line up, were projected on the scrim behind them.
As the dance passed its mid-point a couple sitting nearby got up and left, then a young man hurried across my field of vision as he departed. The woman directly in front of me sighed now and then and shifted a bit uncomfortably in her seat, as did the person sitting next to me. I could empathize. For all its seeming variety, its change of scenery, projections, and lighting, and with choreography shifting for each of the dozen or so sections, a certain torpor began to set in as time passed.
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