Theaters are for watching live performances, and art museums are for contemplating inanimate objects except in Shen Weis world.
The Chinese-born choreographer, artist and director thinks all of the arts should be experienced in one place. He will put that theory into practice this week at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh with five performances, co-sponsored by the American Dance Festival, of his Undivided Divided, a work that will weave dozens of dancers among the paintings and sculptures in the galleries of the museums West Building.
He formed his company, Shen Wei Dance Arts, at the American Dance Festival in Durham in 2000. Over the past dozen years, he has built an international reputation with his mysterious and mesmerizing stage works, and, more recently, with his site-specific pieces in venues ranging from the Beijing Olympics to New York Citys Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums of art.
Undivided Divided was first presented last fall in the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall of Manhattans Park Avenue Armory. During the 45-minute piece, audience members wandered among minimally clad dancers perched on canvas-covered platforms or enveloped by large acrylic-glass boxes. Most of the dancers were covered in various colors of paint, their bodies daubing designs as they twisted and undulated. Dramatic lighting, video projections and a musical score added to the effect.
Shen Wei, winner of a prestigious MacArthur genius grant, is adapting the piece for the performances here, a process he discussed recently by phone from his home in New York City.
I will have to make a lot of changes because of the limited space at the NCMA, he said. We cant do the projections that we did at the armory, but that will encourage more focus on the dancers. It will also give me an opportunity to figure out how to show off the art works as well.
Because the museum is divided into a dozen galleries, Shen Wei will array his dancers among them, their performances playing out simultaneously in each. Audience members can start in any gallery and decide when to move on and where to go next. Each will have a different experience of the piece, depending on the choices made over the 45-minute period.
These performances are a coup both for the museum and for the dance festival.
This is only the third time Shen Wei has staged performances in a museum and the first time in one outside New York City. Based on his experiences here, Shen Wei will offer performances to other museums around the world.
Although audiences are limited to 190 for each performance, having crowds of that size gathered around performers in the galleries brings up concerns about the safety of the art works in them. But those concerns havent dampened museum director Larry Wheelers enthusiasm for the project.
I had no hesitation when ADF approached us with the idea, he recalled. I knew Id have to convince my curators and conservators, but my ammunition was that there had been full-scale choreography by Shen Wei in galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art without any negative results. Besides, I think the performances will liberate the art and enliven it.
Wheeler isnt discounting the risks involved, but after meeting with Shen Wei and the ADF technical crew, he was convinced that things would go well.
They are professionals, and they are as sensitive to safety as any of us, he said.
The performances are particularly gratifying for Jodee Nimerichter, head of ADF, where many of Shen Weis works have premiered.
Shen Wei had expressed interest in doing a site-specific work locally, and Nimerichter had long wanted to collaborate with the Museum of Art.
It seemed a good venue to combine Shen Weis skills as visual artist and choreographer, she said, and to surround him with breathtaking art works, which basically become the set design for his piece.
Shen Wei is eager to foster new audiences for dance and visual arts.
One of my main goals is to inspire people to open their senses and minds, said the choreographer, who sees an intimate connection between the audience and the performers as one way to accomplish that goal. When you are so close to the dancers, you cant just observe; you are drawn into the dancers energy and notice details much more than when sitting in a theater.