- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 20, 2001

Shen Wei Dance Arts, a small group formed less than two years ago by a native of China with a spiritual vision, is finding a responsive audience.

The 12-member dance company performs Tuesday and Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. After that, it makes its European debut and embarks on a U.S. tour.

When asked what was most important to him in his artistic development, founder Shen Wei pauses and then responds, "I found out how to live as a human being, and what is the human meaning in our life."

His path to that vision has involved a dramatic journey.

"I think I was led to it through many years of experience," he says. "I grew up in China. When I left, I was 27 and for the last six years I have been living in New York City. I've found my own way, which I think combines both cultures, even the philosophy of the way to live, the way to see things, the way to be an artist."

Shen Wei was born in Hunan province during the second year of the Cultural Revolution. He was sent off to the opera department of sha when he was only 9 and never lived with his parents again.

"I could only see my parents twice a year," he says. "It was a hard life, I think now. But then I didn't know there could be a better life. I didn't know you could wash your clothes in a machine, that on an icy morning in winter you could wash your face with warm water."

The dancer was a member of a Chinese opera company for five years. He then became a founding member of China's first modern-dance group, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, where he first began to choreograph. Although the Guangdong group appeared in this country, Shen Wei was on the outs with the authorities for befriending some visiting Taiwanese and was not allowed to travel here.

Eventually, he made his way to New York. He wanted to go there, he says, because he was young and eager to find out what was going on in another world. He wanted to learn everything. He studied dance in the city and choreographed for small pickup groups. He continued to work as a painter, another of his passions he also has studied calligraphy since age 7 and furthered his interest in Western art.

"I studied painting for many years in completely Western style impressionist, Renaissance and classical painting," he says. "I think my work reflects that. How I manage bodies as a choreographer comes out of Western painting. It can be abstract, even surrealistic."

This rich mix in his background, his grounding in Chinese opera, his work as a painter in the classical Chinese style and his new experiences in New York find their way to the stage in sensual images.

Commenting on his dances, Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times said: "Surreal and dreamlike, they are in fact distinctive in their startling originality. Mr. Shen has a quality of haunting strangeness that others do not."

His company will perform "Near the Terrace" here, a work in two parts that caused a sensation at the American Dance Festival at Durham, N.C., where it was first presented.

Charles Reinhart, co-director of the festival with his wife, Stephanie Reinhart, and also dance adviser to the Kennedy Center, says, "There's a lot of interest in his work in Europe from the choreography he's done for Guangdong; people are coming over next week to see it."

Mrs. Reinhart adds, "People have helped Shen Wei along his path partly because of what he's like as a human being and because of his tremendous talent."

The first part of "Near the Terrace" is set to the Western music of Arvo Part and Benjamin Iobst; the second part uses traditional Indonesian music. Before he began "Near the Terrace," Shen Wei showed the dancers a book about the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux. He says he talks to his dancers a lot, involving them deeply in his artistic process.

"I want them to be more honest, more truthful onstage," he says, "to show the audience what they believe in their hearts. I tell them, 'If art is fake, that's the worst thing in life, forever.'"

The dancer-choreographer often covers his dancers' bodies, faces and hair in chalk-white powder, something often seen in the work of Butoh dancers and Eiko and Koma. It produces an other-worldly effect, but Shen Wei uses it somewhat differently.

"It's partly the way I want the stage to look," he says. "The colors, the lighting, the set, the movement come together to present really strong feelings. My work is not about real life. It has nothing to do with what's happening on the street. Painting a body white can create a different atmosphere, an artistic vision."

Shen Wei considers himself an artist first, in the generic sense. Secondarily, he is choreographer, painter and dancer. He uses what he learned from Chinese opera about how to move bodies in different shapes. He also reflects the inspiration he received from Western painting.

In "Near the Terrace," he created the choreography, the costumes, sets and even the makeup. He believes there are many ways painting, dancing, film, opera, different art forms for an artist to transfer his beliefs to reachan audience.

He has traveled many miles and through multiple cultures to reach his present state. When he thinks back to his time in China, it seems to him like another life, another incarnation. But where he is now is a place his mind and spirit want to be.

"My personal life is very simple," he says. "I'm 33 years old. I have never lived with anybody in my life. Even though I live in New York, people that see me don't feel I'm living there. I'm a really calm person, even more so than I was in China. Everybody thinks I do meditating every day, but I never do that. I think my life pace is quite meditating all the time."

What this new life means to him is the chance to do work that audiences find both abstract and deeply moving

"Sometimes after a performance, the audience come to me and say they feel cleansed, they feel more pure," he says. "They have tears in their eyes. If I can give to people this kind of feeling, to touch them in a spiritual way, I need to do it.

"I feel deeply about what art means," he says. "I have this passion to make good art, to make life more beautiful beautiful, not just pretty."

WHAT: Shen Wei Dance Arts

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

WHERE: Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: $19 to $32

PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324

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