Review: Shen Wei Dance Arts in Connect Transfer at Barbican Theatre

Performance: 17-20 Oct 07
Reviewed by Mariko Harano - Friday 19 October 2007

I have a Japanese friend who is a calligraphy artist. When I saw a photograph of her doing a live calligraphy performance in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with her tiny frame stretched to the full in a grand plié position holding a gigantic calligraphy brush in her hands, I thought she looked as if she was dancing. For the Chinese choreographer Shen Wei, it must be a natural act to combine these two art forms in his *Connect Transfer* (in which he dances a series of short and contemplative solos himself as interludes)_._ Wei‘s eclecticism is harmoniously accompanied by a collection of 20th century chamber and piano music. The result is a stylishly integrated, abstract contemporary dance piece appealing to minimalist aesthetics.

The stage is simplistic, with black curtains hanging as the backdrop of the stage with a black grand piano discreetly placed in the middle, almost hidden by the curtain of the same colour. In utter silence, the dancers turn up one by one on the stage with the floor covered with a huge rectangular carpet in solid white. The twelve dancers, in sexually neutral attire (unitards, tights and high socks in muted blue and black), vary in size, shape and ethnicity. Everything is neat, clean and tranquil. To the repetition of slow arpeggios of discord, they strike poses, in a meditative manner, in solos, duos, trios and groups, sometimes hand in hand (reminiscent of_ Matisse’s La Danse_). In a variety of stretched body positions, they direct their torsos, heads and limbs in all bearings. These poses are interposed between smooth swirling, first in standing and then rolling on the floor positions. The audience gradually realises that the pleasing whirling movement is, at the same time, the driving force of “body calligraphy” to be drawn on the empty white floor. Finally, a dancer starts to roll with a glove soaked in black ink in her hand, leaving the trace of her circling movements on the white ground. Gradually, more and more brushed outlines are drawn by other performers in seemingly arbitrary successions of round formations. In addition to black lines, red and blue lines are splashed on the floor, drawing distorted hoops.

When Stephen Gosling starts to play the piano, accompanying the pre-recorded piano sound (an intriguing effect), calmness is disturbed by commotion on the stage. To Ligeti‘s quirky and mocking tunes, the dancers hop, frolic and bounce, as though they were mechanical dolls equipped with springs on their heels, displaying blistering footwork in the air. The virtuosity is highlighted by successive oblique airborne turns (resembling those you see in Cossack dance or Chinese opera – Wei’s original physical discipline back in China).

In the finale, dancers take turns one by one in demonstrating “human brush” whirling routines with gloves steeped in a variety of colours – purple, green, pink, yellow, orange….. The resultant painting after a 70 minute performance is a polychromatic non-pictorial composition, evoking Chagall’s vivid canvases on a musical theme. Presented by a group of dancers all covered in blotted ink, it’s a sheer pleasure to one’s eyes and sensation.

However, what about souls? My calligrapher friend said that the art of calligraphy is not just about drawing visual images but also about the process of creation, in which the artist concentrates on the core spirit of the meaning of characters which can be interpreted in multifold ways. The inspirational creativity of Connect Transfer literally “connects” performers with the audience. It also bridges East and West, Tradition and Modernity, Physical, Visual and Acoustic elements in a refined fashion. Does it connect Body and Soul, then? It depends on how you interpret this colourful non-representational piece.

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