When New York City-based Shen Wei Dance Arts makes its Santa Barbara debut next week, it will be celebrating two homecomings. Artistic Director Shen Wei grew up in China’s Hunan Province in the 1960s and ’70s, during the Cultural Revolution. At age 9, he left home to study classical Chinese opera, painting, and calligraphy. In his late twenties, having been exposed to and fallen in love with modern dance, he moved again, this time traveling halfway across the world to settle in New York City. This month, the internationally acclaimed choreographer took his company back to his homeland for the first time. His dancers come to Santa Barbara fresh off their China tour, among them UCSB alumna Chelsea Retzloff, who will be making her first appearance on a Central Coast stage since graduating from the dance department in 2007.
It took a few weeks for me to catch the choreographer on the phone — he was busy finalizing the details for the company’s China tour. Though all those years of training in traditional Chinese art forms continue to inform Shen Wei’s work, he has kept his American company distinct from the land of his birth. They have toured the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Australia; they’ve covered Western Europe, stopped off in Israel and Serbia, and even visited South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong without ever touching down on the Chinese mainland. Shen Wei himself has returned to set work on Chinese dancers, notably in 2008 when he helped choreograph and direct the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, yet he has rooted himself in Western soil. He’s known for blending Eastern and Western influences and for bringing a holistic approach to the stage, often designing his own sets and using costumes and lighting in painterly ways. On the program for Santa Barbara are two of Shen Wei’s seminal works: “Folding” from 2000, and “Rite of Spring” from 2003. “Folding” is a visually striking work set to the music of John Tavener and Tibetan Buddhist chanting, while “Rite of Spring” is Shen Wei’s take on one of modern dance’s most iconic scores; this year marks the centennial of the original Nijinsky ballet with music by Stravinsky. Those familiar with the 1913 “Rite of Spring” will note that Shen Wei takes off in an entirely new direction.
“If you grow up in China, you have a different way of using the body,” he explained last week. “You hear music differently. And of course visual arts have been huge for me. All of these things affect how I create my work.”
Finding the right dancers is critical, too; the choreographer lists physical strength, open-mindedness, and amicability as his three main requirements. Of Retzloff, who has been with the company for two years, Shen Wei said, “She’s strong, and at the same time really smart. She can be explosive and muscular, and she can also move softly. We’re traveling and working together hours and hours every day, which requires patience and understanding, and Chelsea does very well at that.”
For her part, Retzloff says working with Shen Wei Dance Arts is a dream come true. “We all struggle as modern dancers in New York,” the 27-year-old said. “We live in the trenches — and then when we’re on tour, it’s this euphoric experience of having people appreciate us for our artistry.”
At a time when political division, economic instability, and natural disaster are at the forefront of the American psyche, Shen Wei says dance matters as much as ever. “There’s so much power in the way the human body moves,” he said. “It’s hard to lie with the body. For me, dance is the purest expression of humanity.”
Shen Wei Dance Arts comes to the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Wednesday, November 28, at 8 p.m., courtesy of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.