Shen Wei

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After turning The Met and the Park Avenue Armory into his dancers’ playgrounds, Shen Wei is setting his sights on our Cultural Centre. Edmund Lee talks to the New York-based choreographer.


For the closing programme of the New Vision Arts Festival taking place this fortnight, New York-based Chinese choreographer Shen Wei is bringing his company, Shen Wei Dance Arts, to take over the Hong Kong Cultural Centre – and not just in the Grand Theatre. After previously staging site-specific pieces for The Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the 50,000sq ft hall inside Park Avenue Armory in New York, the MacArthur Fellowship recipient and lead choreographer for the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies is creating a completely new work for the foyer of our Cultural Centre. “It’s about something happening,” Shen tells Time Out, “which is to say that the entire piece is about a journey, about something in action. It’s a living moment.” The Hong Kong programme also includes Limited States, a revised 40-minute version of the multimedia work that was commissioned by last year’s American Dance Festival.

Can you reflect on your previous experiences in creating site-specific works in the US?
The experience of working at the Met and the Armory are huge developments in my work. I’ve been thinking how to make artworks that are closer to the audience and, at the same time, more into the location of the sites, and also how the sites affect the performers. They are in the same place – the same environment – as the audience. That’s a very interesting subject for me. For now, I really like this way [of working]. Of course it’s a very big challenge for me to [set] the performance in the foyer [of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre] because it’s never been done before. [The space was] not built for performance.

How different is it to be creating for one specific open venue rather than a normal stage?
Oh, so different. Because for this piece I have to be thinking about four directions; you can’t just be facing one direction. In a normal performance the audience can only see one side and the performers can come in and out. They can go backstage and come back again. They can change. But for this kind of performance, you never go [outside]. You’re in the place for the whole time. The audience can get close to you or they can go far away. The audience has a [greater] flexibility than the performers.

Can you tell us a bit about the other work that you’re bringing to Hong Kong? What’s the inspiration behind Limited States?
The work is about the scale and limitation in space or in time. It’s about the limitation of life – of human life – but in a really abstract way.

We note that the version to be performed here will be more condensed than the one performed last year.
The new version is actually completely new. I can even change its name because it’s so different [from the version] we did in the past. This one is of a much larger scale than [what] we did before. We will perform with more dancers and a more complicated [arrangement]. It’s only 20 minutes shorter but it’s a really, really stronger [work]. From now on, we’ll only perform this version because I like this one better – much better – than what we had before.

Having firmly established your reputation in the New York dance scene in the past decade, do you see yourself as more of a Chinese artist or a relatively Westernised artist nowadays?
I never really think about this when I make a work. I only think about how to make a good work. I just think that I’m a Chinese person living in New York and doing international work. I’m not representing one culture. I’m representing the cultures of today – internationally. That’s why my company has been travelling [so much] and has been so well received, [and] that’s why my work can communicate with the audience everywhere – in both the East and the West, in developed countries and [developing] countries. I think that’s sometimes what I’m [most] proud of doing: to share art with all the people around the world.

You’re sometimes portrayed as a sculptor of the human body and your dancers are often dressed in minimalist costumes that expose the body. What’s your thought on this?
[Chuckles] Dance is like painting. You see in the Renaissance [period] or in the galleries or museums that some paintings look much better without dress, [while] some paintings look much better with clothes on. It really depends on what the artist is trying to say.

How would you describe your ambition as a choreographer?
[My ambition is] that I can make good art and share it with all the different people, to move people [and let them] feel the beauty of the human body. That’s why I don’t like people covered [in] too many [clothes]. It’s the beauty of the human body, of muscles and movement. That is one of my big things.

Shen Wei’s Limited States and a new site-specific work are at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre and Foyer, Fri 16 and Sat 17. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.

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