NORTH ADAMS -- Like the auteurs of the film world, Shen Wei, the Chinese-born American choreographer, appears to prefer overseeing virtually all aspects of his dances, not only every little movement, but the design of sets, costumes and lighting as well.
And he seems resistant to many dance traditions and notions about artistic legends held near and dear by most. His revision of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" is a useful case in point. Its subtitle makes quite clear its intention: "Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts." And the composer, himself, after allowing for a few years the belief that the music came first and the theme later, finally disclosed in 1936, in his autobiography, an initial vision of a pagan rite in which a sacrificial virgin dances herself to death.
Shen Wei nevertheless spurned that now accepted narrative, and in 2003, created his "Rite of Spring" that deeply explores Stravinsky's score -- he said he spent two to three years studying it -- and came up with an abstraction on that score, which displayed little suggestion of spring, a pagan rite or a sacrificed virgin.
That version of what Stravinsky called "Le Sacre du printemps" was offered by Shen
Wei Dance Arts as a centennial tribute to the controversial world premiere of the original
Stravinsky/Nijinsky collaboration in Paris, as part of a double bill Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon in the Hunter Center at Mass MoCA, constituting the annual joint presentation by the museum and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.
In setting up this startlingly different "Rite," Shen has 12 dancers initially poised in the wings, but visible, advancing quickly out to selected spaces, like chess pieces, on a diagonally gridded painting that covers the entire stage. This action takes place over several minutes in complete silence until all are out, setting off a game of musical squares among the performers who hop into spaces, sending occupants elsewhere to repeat the process, before Stravinsky's original four-hand score begins in Fazil Say's heavily percussive recording,
As the recorded pianist pounds on, the dancers dash about in tiny steps, small chassés and twirling pivots, in stocking feet. Lifts and any other expression of partnering is absent, in a rather bleak scene, coordinated costumes matching the floor painting in shades of gray and black, suggesting nothing like the exclamatory vernal equinox always celebrated by those in intemperate climes. The dancing is efficient and exacting, rather mathematical in its thrust, but strangely lacking an anchor in its demand for imagining a pagan dance of spring.
"Collective Measures," the program's other work and new this year, promised a probe of our individual navigations in and out of sync with a crowded world. Here, Shen's message emerged generally in a piece combining live dancing with overhead projections on a scrim that repeatedly flowed out from the wings, while the score, credited to Daniel Burke and others, ranged from stressed chords to Minimalist three- and four-note repetitions.
Early in the piece a female dancer writhing about close to a floor flat spattered with wet paint managed to acquire its colors over her scantily clad body before she moves off stage along with the flat transported by a couple of male dancers.
In another sequence as many as 10 dancers, attired in discrete body stockings, demonstrated co-existence without actual body contact on a lighted spot measuring little more than ten-feet-square.
Eventually, in this 40-minute effort dancers managed to connect in support movements on the floor, a few unorthodox lifts absent of beauty and finally a long row of all 15 dancers spooned together in a line and bending knees slightly as the lights went down and the curtain slowly closed on the proceedings. The customary mini-standing ovation followed.