Dance trilogy Re-Triptych journeys from Tibet to China at 2011 EIF
Shen Wei piece features music of Ani Choying Dolma and John Tavener
This article is from 2011.
He choreographed the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony. Now New York-based Shen Wei has created a dance trilogy that voyages from Tibet to his homeland of China. Kelly Apter explores each of its three parts
Re – (i)
Shen Wei was standing in a record store in New York City when he felt the power of Tibetan spirituality. Despite having made three trips to the region, exploring its temples, it was not until he returned home to America that the music for Re- (i) presented itself. Hearing the chanting of Ani Choying Drolma, a Buddhist nun based in Nepal, on CD had an immediate impact on the choreographer.
'As soon as I heard it I was so touched by it,' recalls Shen Wei. 'These people don't think like a composer, they just follow their passion. There's a natural flow that comes from the heart, and a natural rhythm to the words. For me, it's the most honest and pure music, and that really moved me.'
With breathing such a fundamental part of both chanting and dancing, Shen Wei set about understanding how Ani Choying Drolma and her fellow chanters used their breath to deliver each sentence. This was then incorporated into the choreography – calling for a little preparation time on the part of the performers. If you arrive at the theatre early this August, not only will you see the dancers covering the stage with a confetti Mandala (a concentric religious symbol they later destroy with their bodies) but also learning to breathe as one.
'As the audience comes in, the dancers are trying to co-ordinate their breathing,' says Shen Wei. 'And throughout the piece you can see that everybody is really concentrating on their breath. When there is no music, none of the normal cues, they actually feel each other just by breathing together. And once they're doing that, the movement can be co-ordinated.'
Re – (ii)
In 2007, a year after Re- (i) premiered, Shen Wei created a companion piece, this time inspired by his visit to Cambodia – or more specifically the temple complex of Angkor Wat. It was here he happened upon a group of disabled musicians, whose bodies had been ravaged by bombs, but whose joyful spirit shone through.
'Some of the musicians had been blinded or didn't have legs,' recalls Shen Wei, 'but when they played, they forgot how poor they were and the condition of their bodies. Their music was so beautiful it made you smile – I stayed there for hours just listening to them.' He also recorded the band and bought their CD ('so I could always remember that moment') both of which can be heard during the first half of Re- (ii), along with sounds captured in the jungle surrounding Angkor Wat.
For the second half, Shen Wei chose a piece of music which has long been in his own personal collection, John Tavener's Tears of the Angels. 'I have been a huge fan of John Tavener for a long time,' he says. 'His music, and especially the piece I'm using, is so spiritual – it's romantic and sad at the same time. The second half of Re- (ii) is the spiritual part, the part about feelings where I explore beauty, nature and human life and death, so it worked well with his music.'
Re – (iii)
In 2009 the final instalment of Re-Triptych was born, ending with a rather sentimental journey for Shen Wei back to his homeland. Re- (iii) is an abstract representation of his travels along the Chinese stretch of the Silk Road, which took him 40 days to complete.
'I travelled to southern China, with its beautiful mountains and landscapes,' says Shen Wei, 'not like Beijing or Shanghai with their skyscrapers. Then I tried to work out how to talk about the China of today, but it's so complicated. At the same time, I was going back and forth to New York, and thinking about how both western and eastern culture influences life in today's China and today's New York – so that was my focal point.'
Having used human voice and traditional folk music in the first two works, Shen Wei wanted to take a different approach with the third. He commissioned Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and fellow New Yorker David Lang to create a piece of electronic music. 'Each part of the triptych is so independent and different from the others in terms of movement and the statement of the work,' says Shen Wei. 'So I wanted David to take the music in a completely different direction, too.'
For Lang, ensuring his composition was unlike those which had gone before was also important. 'If my piece was coming at the end of all this really beautiful music, I had to do something that was not going to remind you of that music,' he says. 'The Tavener is very beautiful, the folk music is very lovely and powerful – so I really didn't want to give anyone the opportunity to say, “Well that sounds sort of like the first section, but I liked that first section so much better!”' Lang may be laughing as he says this, but whether he means it or not, the end result is the same – the music for Re- (iii) could not be more different.
Before he'd created a single note, however, Lang shared 'many, many cups of coffee' with Shen Wei, hearing his hopes for the piece and tales from the Silk Road expedition. 'He talked about that a lot,' says Lang, 'and about going back to somewhere he used to know and finding it suffused with this incredible hyper-activity and confusion – but a kind of positive confusion, an energetic mass of people moving at the same time and making things. He wanted to have that in the piece, which helped me build a trajectory for what I was going to do.'
Unlike Re- (i) and (ii), where Shen Wei had to adapt to music already in place, this final piece slowly emerged, both musically and choreographically, as the two men worked together. 'All the music was present at the very first rehearsal I saw,' explains Lang. 'but there's nothing that made it into the final version that wasn't changed by what happened in the rehearsal room. It's like going to a tailor – they bring out a beautiful suit and then say, I'll pin it here, I'll take it out there.'
Although Lang worked closely with Shen Wei during the creation of Re- (iii), it wasn't until he saw it on stage that he fully appreciated what both choreographer and dancers had done with his music. 'When you're in rehearsal, you think you know what it is, but you don't, not until it's perfectly realised in front of an audience – especially with those amazing dancers,' he says. 'I always think it's like the difference between watching a movie in black and white on television and then seeing it in colour in a movie theatre. You know the plot, you know how it turns out, but you haven't really seen it. I was very, very happy.'
Re-Triptych, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, 0131 473 2000, 1–3 Sep, 7.30pm, £10–£30.