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.
The quality of the dancing was not particularly strong or distinctive. There were times, especially for the men, when the performers seemed unusually awkward. This occurred often enough that I began to suspect some aspects might have been at Shen’s direction.
Though each segment of choreography appeared to be different one from another, the coloration remained the same. There were few highs or lows, more a monochromatic effort that became predictable whether the dancers moved in space, stayed in one place, partnered, or formed a dancing line.
“Limited States” begins with a long period of silence as we watch the video and the entering dancers. It is visually alluring and intriguing and we wait expectantly for the first sound. What follows is an assemblage that doesn’t quite make sense: a hit of Rossini, the weather reports, and snippets from two contemporary pieces. Perhaps the allusion here is to the way we hear things in our new age of technology — with some attention deficit.
The music for segments two and three is first by the hard-core California band Illusion of Safety, then an electronic piece by Daniel Burke. They are loud and grating, with the Burke particularly strident. Midway through the final section I was ready to throw in the towel, the score seeming an intentional in-your-face act.
Though the work's music gathers force, the choreography and performance don’t, and much of the beauty and power of the visuals have dissipated. In the last segment of "Limited States" the space is filled only by the dancers and four large lighting instruments on moveable stands that are maneuvered around by the performers. It seems all contrivance, and the work ends without resolution.
There is one other curious aspect to Shen’s work — his use of the women performers. Viewers may or may not have seen as exploitive the bare breasted woman writhing about making designs on the stage floor. Yet taken together with two other sequences, one begins to wonder what Shen is trying to say.
Twice repeated is a video sequence with a trio of dancers: Two women and one man stand shoulder to shoulder. The women are poked in the stomach or their faces tweaked, but not the man. In an earlier live sequence, four women, entering one by one, dance close to the ground in that small white square in which Procopio later paints herself. Four men enter the space over time, but rather than dancing with the women, they manipulate and direct their movement.
Still, at many other times there is a definite sense of egality among the performers. Curious.
Shen Wei is clearly a gifted artist, and the program lists a very impressive set of funders who supported the creation of “Limited States.” He’s also been the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant.' Still, after seeing his work for the first time, a focus on less might have been more.