The dance company that Shen Wei runs out of his Lower Manhattan apartment is coming to the Kennedy Center's Festival of China this week. And that will bring him full circle with the homeland that has been so difficult to love.
Not that America has been easy, either. It was here, after all, that the fast pace of life and the struggle to make it as an immigrant and an artist left him literally breathless, his heart galloping at double and sometimes triple the normal rate. The relentless hammering under his ribs was so loud he could hear it. Alone, friendless and uninsured, he ended up having a four-hour operation to relieve a blockage in his heart.
He couldn't afford to remain in the hospital overnight, so he took the subway home that evening. A few days later he was in Hawaii creating a new work for a company there, and six months later he was onstage performing it; he continues to perform to this day. Shen feels sure that his heart trouble was brought on by stress.
"Think about it," he says, reflecting on the episode that happened in 1998, three years after he arrived here with a scholarship to study dance. "You don't speak English at all, you have no money, you give up everything you had in China. There are pressures and stress on you, and in New York City it's already pretty stressed.
"Plus," he adds, almost as an afterthought, "you're someone who doesn't know anything about the Western world."
Culture shock nearly killed him. It is also, however, what gives his work its allure, its distinctive atmosphere of otherworldliness. Shen is a master of detail, designing the costumes, sets and makeup as well as the choreography. On his upcoming program, "The Rite of Spring" is an explosive abstract exploration of the Stravinsky score of the same name, set to a four-handed piano version; the more meditative "Folding" features dancers moving with the slow pliancy of melting wax, accompanied by Tibetan chants. Powerfully theatrical, stylized and emotionally cool, his productions are fed by both Asian traditions and American experimentation, but they belong to neither camp.
As with his art, Shen is somewhat nationless, completely at home neither there nor here.
The journey that will deliver Shen Wei Dance Arts to the Eisenhower Theater for sold-out programs on Friday and Saturday has been painful in more ways than one for its 37-year-old founder. Shen left China as a rising young star frustrated by government restrictions. As one of the founding members of the state-supported Guangdong Modern Dance Company, he was spied on for befriending a group of Taiwanese dancers. He was prevented from leaving China to tour with Guangdong for fear his U.S.-allied acquaintances would help him defect. So he quit the company and, as an unemployed person no longer on the official radar, had no need to defect to seize an offer to study here at the Alwin Nikolais/Murray Louis Dance Lab.
In the decade since, Shen has become one of the most talked-about makers of modern dance in the country. He established his company just five years ago, hiring students from the summer program at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. Several of them are still with the 11-member troupe that is now in demand around the world, performing throughout Europe, Israel and Australia as well as at the Lincoln Center and Spoleto festivals. After the Washington performances, the dancers embark on a month-long tour of Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.
Performing at the Festival of China, however, has special meaning, Shen says. Overseas, his company is always presented as an American entity. Yet he still feels like an outsider here, remaining flummoxed by American ways, American briskness and rush. He chose this life, yet he's homesick, often. He's so happy, he says, that "10 years later I have something to do with my country."
Shen's complicated relationship with China has early roots. His parents directed and performed in opera productions in the city of Xian Ying, in the Hunan province of south-central China, where the family dwelled inside the theater complex itself. When Shen was 2, the Cultural Revolution swept through the province, sending all artists -- including Shen's parents -- into the countryside to labor alongside the peasants. It was a time when millions died across the country from the forced hardship and acts of violence, and countless artworks, antiques and historic sites were destroyed. It is said that 5,000 years of art turned to dust in a decade. In the innocence of toddlerhood, however, Shen's eyes saw only sweetness.
"My memories are beautiful," he says, laughing at the irony. Wearing jeans, pointy-toed boots and a loose olive-green shirt, with short hair fringing a delicate, elfin face, he is sitting in a cafe near Carnegie Hall. "There were kids carrying me on their back, there was sunshine all the time, they took me outside to the rice fields to play." A quiet, solitary child, Shen delighted in painting and practicing calligraphy in the hallway of the farmhouse his family shared with others.
It was only later that he learned how his parents had suffered from the physical labor. By that time, it was Shen's turn. After two years of farming, the family returned to the city. At age 9, Shen left home to study opera at the Hunan Arts School. To make up for what was lost during the Cultural Revolution's mayhem, Shen says, the teachers "worked us incredibly hard." The students had classes from dawn until night. They bathed in cold water, even in winter. They were underfed and always hungry. And their teachers beat them "all the time," he says. Asked by what means, he replies with a laugh, "Oh, they had so many different ways!"
Still, Shen recalls, it was also a kind of paradise. "Being in the mountains, walking outdoors. . . . Always watching clouds, trees, birds. Always talking about art. We discovered how life should be, a really spiritual life."
Shen performed with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company for five years, starting at the age of 16. But he had decided that he really wanted to be a painter, and hoping to earn money for lessons, he entered a dance competition. He was well versed in Chinese opera movement, but the free-form routine he came up with -- accompanied not by the customary delicate Chinese flutes but by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony -- blew the judges away, and he won first prize. He'd been inspired, he says, by a Canadian modern dance company he had seen the year before. All he remembers of the program is a female dancer who "used her body like a liquid." He rolls his shoulders, makes gentle waves in the air with his arms.
"I thought, wow -- how can you dance like that? It was something really fresh, new, that had to do with our time, our life."
Acting on the advice of one of the dance contest's judges, he traveled south to the city of Guang-zhou, in Guangdong province, and enrolled in the newly created modern dance program at the dance academy there. In 1991, the school gave rise to China's first modern dance company, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, with Shen as one of the original members.
Shen began making works for the company that became some of the troupe's biggest hits. Yet neither he nor his works were part of Guangdong's American premiere a short time later. Considered a political risk, he couldn't travel with the group to Europe, either.
In 1995, knowing perhaps three words of English, he struck out on his own for New York. "I wanted to be more educated, to see more things, to learn from other masters, to have more ability," he says.
That same year he created a work as part of the American Dance Festival's International Choreography Commissioning Project, where Charles Reinhart, the festival director, remembers thinking he had discovered rare potential.
"It was in the details," says Reinhart, who with his late wife, Stephanie, also devised the Kennedy Center's dance programming for several years. "He didn't quite know how to make it all work, but it was an intuitive sense of, 'Oh, look how he put it all together.' "
Reinhart says Shen's choreographic style was "right down the middle of modern dance" then, but after studying for a few years with movement-theater artist Martha Clarke -- audiences may remember her Kennedy Center productions of the earthy "Vienna: Lusthaus" and the taut, minimalist "Vers la Flamme," based on social tensions in Chekhov stories -- he became more sophisticated. Creativity started pouring out of him, Reinhart says, as a direct result of the problems he had faced in China and in his health.
"All of those things played a part in his life, and they all had to do with restriction," he says. "He had to be careful because of his heart, and he wasn't free [with] the way China was back then, and able to be totally self-expressive. So you see him in a sort of straitjacket, wanting to burst out. And I think New York represented that opportunity."
Soon other dance companies were seeking commissions from the slightly built, soft-spoken young man whose dances were like precise, painterly brushstrokes on air. In the summer of 2000, when Shen was again in North Carolina creating a new work, Reinhart suggested he form his own troupe.
The company's swift artistic success has not exactly translated into financial riches. It now has a budget of about $1 million, says Executive Director Patty Bryan, and despite the bad times overall for the arts, it has enjoyed a steady increase in touring and funding. Still, Shen Wei Dance Arts is a decidedly low-frills operation. The dancers rehearse in various rented studios. Shen still has no health insurance.
Nor, he says, can he afford to take advantage of the many different classes this dance mecca has to offer -- one of the reasons he came to New York in the first place. He trains his dancers in his own brand of slippery-smooth technique, full of circularity and continuousness.
It's a way of moving unlike any other, says dancer Jesse Zaritt, who joined the company four years ago. "Everything I had learned before as a modern dancer I had to throw out and start all over," he says. Shen's fastidiousness never wanes, he says, so that a musically defined work such as "Rite of Spring," which Zaritt has danced for years, "scares me every time I approach it." This tension and newness is what keeps him in the company, he says. That, and the audience reaction to the works.
"It's kind of overwhelming," he says. "I don't think anyone expected to be so popular."
On a recent afternoon, a rehearsal of "Rite of Spring" is underway when Shen arrives. Slipping quickly into sweat pants, he takes his place on the dance floor among the others, while another company member continues to lead the rehearsal. When he is not dancing, Shen draws back against a wall and watches silently. He says little for more than an hour, then takes individual dancers aside to hone their fluidity and rhythmic accent.
"More breath," he tells one, demonstrating with his arms billowing like swans' wings at liftoff. "I want to see the breath through your movements."
Shen has returned to China -- he taught one of his pieces to the Guangdong company five years ago -- and hopes to take his company there soon, perhaps even as part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He says relations with the country, which has opened up in many respects in the past decade, are now easy. All his family still lives there; his parents are semi-retired from the opera.
But Shen's future lies here, he knows, even though the years have still not completely eased the transition. As an example of the cultural differences, he cites the way Americans and Chinese deal with the small favors of friendship. "In China, if you give something, I don't give you something back. I remember." He closes his eyes and brings a hand to his chest. "A long, long time I will have that thing. It goes in my heart. Then I will find a way to give back. But Americans need it now. It's more like a business.
"But that's how they grow up," he says with equanimity. "You cannot blame anybody for that."
In his down time, Shen frequents museums and occasional art films, but mostly he prefers to read Chinese philosophy. When he gets a longing for home -- especially during the Chinese holidays, the moon festival, the New Year -- he'll walk through Chinatown and buy more books. The best part of life in New York, he says, is that "if you feel empty, you can find a place that can fill you up. You can find a way to help yourself to recover and get your balance back."
He credits his spiritual foundation -- primarily in Buddhism, though he does not call himself a Buddhist -- as well as his innate patience and ability to focus, with allowing him to achieve a measure of success he could not have imagined.
"Definitely, I've paid a lot of price for that," he says. "People ask me about the past, and I think, wow, I can't believe I did all those things."