Two (Very) Modern Dance Companies

By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 21, 2008

Interested in dance, but hoping for something different this time? This weekend and next, Washington will host two dance geniuses (both MacArthur Fellowship winners): Shen Wei, a choreographer on the rise, and Merce Cunningham, the great modern dance iconoclast. Their innovative and original works include unusual outside materials such as iPods and paint.

Shen Wei

In "Connect Transfer" -- the 2004 work by Shen, a dancer, choreographer and painter -- 12 company members use their bodies as paint brushes, leaving their physical traces on a floor-sized canvas covering the stage of the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall.

A Chinese-born, New York-based artist who founded his company just eight years ago, Shen bridges the worlds of dance and art, East and West, with his fluid, creative sensibility drawn from training in classical Chinese opera, which included song, music, design, scenery and calligraphy, and American modern dance.

"I was thinking about how when we dance, we move continuously and don't stop," Shen Wei said speaking recently from Beijing. "We don't separate one movement from the next: Everything is connected from one movement to another."

A visual artist as well as a choreographer, he wanted to see how the two could intimately relate. "Dancers put out a huge theatrical energy when they perform," said the 39-year-old choreographer. "My idea was to see how the dance could leave a trace of that" after the dancers exit.

In addition to the visual after-images, the dancers' movement contributes to the aural environment of the piece, which features pianist Gloria Cheng and the Flux Quartet. The dancers' breath, steps, falls and slides are amplified by microphones.

"Connect Transfer" is best viewed from the theater's tiers and boxes where the painting, created by the dancers during the 70-minute work, becomes visible.

The following day, after the large canvas dries, Shen Wei selects and cuts the best art into smaller canvases, signs them and sells them for $20 to more than $500 in the Grand Foyer. (Canvases from a previous performance will be sold after Friday's show). But for Shen Wei, the choreography remains most important: "I'm not asking my dancers to be painters. They're not trying to make an image on the floor. They're just trying to dance."

Merce Cunningham

Most remarkable about Cunningham is neither his age, 88, nor his creative output, choreographing nearly 200 dances over a career that began with a solo concert in 1944.

Cunningham, ever the iconoclast, is exceptional for his insatiable curiosity and willingness to experiment.

On Thursday, his renowned company returns to Washington for three performances at Sidney Harman Hall to perform three works.

"CRWDSPCR" -- which, written in instant-message-like language, can be read as "Crowd Spacer" or "Crowds Pacer" -- is a dance developed using a software program called "DanceForms." The program allows Cunningham to manipulate bodies on screen before he gets dancers into the studio to begin the choreographic process. The work is generally frenetic, interrupted with a slow solo. Like much of Cunningham's choreography, the dancers exhibit an acuity of line and form: bodies slicing and paring through the space with a determined quickness.

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