Rarely in life do you witness a spectacle so grand, so seemingly unimaginable, that the image stays with you for the rest of your days. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing is one of those instances, the enormity of which was simultaneously awe-inspiring and terrifying. Featuring thousands of dancers performing meticulous choreography depicting China’s 5,000 years of history, the celebration was a spectacle that has resonated with viewers.
Shen Wei, renowned Chinese dancer, choreographer, artist, and designer, was one of the masterminds behind the production. Though Shen serves as an artistic director of his own company, Shen Wei Dance Arts, he had never choreographed a project of that size before the 2008 Olympics. “Of course, I never thought I could make that happen with that kind of stress, challenge, and risk,” he says. “To communicate with all those people was a really great achievement. I was really happy with the results.”
A world away from the Olympic site that made him famous, Shen and his company are heading to Charleston this June for two performances with Spoleto, marking the troupe’s third appearance with the festival. They will perform a triptych entitled Re-Parts I, II, and III that explores the different people, lifestyles, and philosophies Shen has been exposed to over his years of traveling around the world as both an opera singer and dancer. “It’s my journey to those places that came out as a triptych,” he says.
Born in Hunan, China, in 1968, Shen performed leading roles with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company from 1984 through 1989 and founded the Guangdong Modern Dance Company in 1991. Shortly thereafter, Shen received a scholarship from the Nikolais-Louis Dance Lab in New York and moved stateside in 1996. He eventually founded his own company in 2000.
The first part of the contemporary dance trilogy, Re-Part I, focuses on Tibet and its spiritual landscape. The dancers will deconstruct a circle of colored paper to the sounds of a nun’s chanting. Shen says that the dance reflects how he felt while visiting Tibet. “Through a dance movement, and how you can transform a dance movement, that’s a way to communicate with the audience,” he says. Conversely, Re-Part II explores Cambodia, interpreting the ruins of Angkor Wat and other ancient temples through movement. It also contains partial nudity.
The final chapter, Re-Part III, connects the triptych to the modern world. It explores modern China, from the Silk Road to Shen’s Olympic experience, as well as Western society. Re-Part III will feature a score from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. Shen says that he choreographed the triptych not only to explore different cultures, but also to highlight the interconnectedness of humankind. “They’re all different, but they’re all human beings,” he says.
Choreographing dances for his company is certainly a different phenomenon from his experience with the Olympics, according to Shen. Large-scale productions must be choreographed from a faraway perspective, meaning that there is not as much detail in each of the steps. However, choreographing smaller productions requires an immense amount of concentration, focusing even on the smallest of details. “With my company, it’s much smaller because you’re doing it in the theater. You don’t have to think about a television audience or that many people,” he says. “For me, when I make a production, it’s more artistic and pure when I’m doing it with my company.”
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