Shen Wei in Syracuse: Olympic choreographer's residency will be a template

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 03/26/09More articles
The old Cathedral School sits tucked opposite the Civic Center downtown, south of Columbus Circle. Its classroom desks are long gone, but it’s far from vacant. Syracuse Opera rehearses there. This school year Parents Promoting Dance has used is rooms for classes. And, for three weeks recently, Cathedral School’s large open third floor with its low stage was the main rehearsal space for the Syracuse residency of New York City-based modern dance company, Shen Wei Dance Arts.

Shen Wei, 41, is the son of opera professionals from rural Hunan, China. He trained from age 9 in opera performance and you can see traces of that in some of his choreography. But he didn’t start dancing until he was 20. A founding member of China’s first modern dance company in 1991, he came to the US in the mid-90s and in 2000 founded Shen Wei Dance Arts (SWDA). To begin with, he had six dancers, among them West Genesee High School alum Sara Procopio. To choreograph the acclaimed opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which he also performed, Shen Wei had 16,000 dancers.

On a terrifically windy late afternoon two weeks ago, PPD’s Donna Bradford was on hand as Carole Brzozowski swept open the front door for the latest assorted visitors to climb the long stairs and watch Shen Wei’s thirteen dancers - five women and seven men – rehearse.
Bradford, a teacher’s aide at Seymour School whose efforts began so her own daughter could dance, beamed as she said, “We were really happy we could let them have our new dance floor for this.”

PPD is now developing a more permanent space on the East Side along with Biboti Ouikahilo’s Wacheva Cultural Arts. But for Shen Wei’s residency, they brought their dance floor back to Cathedral School in pieces and hauled it up the stairs themselves.

Shen Wei started the first section of the dance triptych that his company worked on here in 2006. “Re – (I, II, III)” is based on his travels to Tibet, along China’s Silk Road and to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple ruins. During the Syracuse residency the company refined Part II and began creating Part III. “Re” has its world premiere in June at the annual American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina. In July it goes to New York City’s Lincoln Center, where Shen Wei began a five-year residency in 2007. SWDA returns to perform the full production, with sets, costumes, and a commissioned musical score by David Langley, on September 24 and 25 at the Landmark Theater.

Usually the two performances are all a city gets. Instead, next fall Syracuse will welcome back a company the community adopted for three weeks and interacted with deeply and often. Out of the Shen Wei long-term residency, Central New York got some specific, measurable things: more than 20 public events, including master classes and workshops with local dance studios, schools from Danforth Middle School to Manlius Pebble Hill, to projects with SU’s Maxwell School, Newhouse School and Honors Program, and a range of community and educational partners large and small. Shen Wei delivered the 2009 Milton Lecture in Hendricks Chapel. The Syracuse public schools got a newly developed K-12 dance curriculum. A meeting with local families of kids born in China generated discussion of ways involving dance to keep their heritage alive. Even the September Landmark performances will be accompanied by an event related to cultural diplomacy, in collaboration with SU’s Maxwell School.

More profoundly, we got the concept of “long-term residency.”

Students pursuing dance as career and those who dance for fun, even some wrestlers at Danforth – all got a chance.

“That,” says Michelle Koziara, who directs Manlius Pebble Hill’s dance program and performing arts department, “is uncommon. This was really dance education.”

Koziara spoke earlier this week about enjoying “really unusual access” for all levels of dancers.

“Some of my students went into a company rehearsal,” she said. “We were invited to watch their rehearsals too, which was great professional development for me. A company member did a master class here at school. It made a great difference. One of my students who’s pursuing a dance career and had been accepted at several colleges was talking with company members and discovered a college that I hadn’t known about, so she’s applied there now.”

“This is what the Chancellor has directed me to do,” said Carole Brzozowski on that windy day in Cathedral School’s front foyer. “This will be the template.”

Brzozowski is Arts Presenter for Syracuse University, which orchestrated the Shen Wei residency with a series of grants, NYSCA participation and a cadre of local partners like Parents Promoting Dance.

So upstairs in Cathedral School – five days before the residency’s farewell performance at Syracuse Stage, a program of excerpts from “Re” interspersed with slides of Shen Wei’s travels and an on-stage conversation between Shen Wei and his executive director, Brett Egan – the dancers worked.

Beside rehearsal director Kate Jewett, Shen Wei sat behind a folding table, often jumping down to mingle with his dancers, demonstrate a move, call attention to their breathing. Breath is the anchor of Shen Wei’s teaching method and, oddly, the wind outside Cathedral School seemed part of the city’s welcome.

“You’re holding yourself,” he said to one, as they worked on throwing an arm and letting their bodies whip around after their arms. “It’s not about how pretty you are.”

"The Post-Standard"’s Ellen Blalock stood on one side of the stage with her camera on a tripod, videotaping. She’d already been there an hour, as had some students of Carol Charles, who still teaches with PPD and the Kuumba Dance Project though she is now community outreach director for Syracuse Stage. Some seated on the stage left quietly and others came in and settled to watch.

“All together,” says Jewett, tapping the edge of the table with a pen. “One and a two and a three…”

A tall dancer with a buzz cut in a turquoise hoodie says, “Open the thighs, guys!” and she points toward the stage before she launches herself, adding, “I’m going that way.”

“…nine and ten,” says Jewett as the company all moves, some of them out of the way of the turquoise hoodie. It’s clear at Cathedral and later at Syracuse Stage that she'll have one of the solos Shen Wei says are still developing.

“Third time,” says Shen Wei. “It’s the tempo.”

The dancer in the turquoise hoodie says, “For the longer limbed people, this is good – the shorter people need it faster.”

Later in the next hour, the dancers form their own tripods – in four clusters moving toward the center of the room, two dancers inched along carrying a third poised between their own bodies, riveting and revelatory.

They perform this again the following Monday evening at Syracuse Stage, to the same effect, as well as a connected line maneuver that Shen Wei says embodies China’s collective approach to all projects. There, Shen Wei remarks that the “Re” triptych marks a departure for him.

“I never made a work about a culture and people before. Most of my work is more abstract. But in 2006-2006 I went to Tibet to spend time alone, to get answers from the monks and ask questions about my own future. After two weeks in Tibet, New York City was a shock! I decided to go back. I started making a piece about Tibet.”

Shen Wei also visited the ruined temples of Angkor Wat and made a 40-day trip along the ancient trading route known as the “Silk Road” from Beijing to the far western border. He returned with stories of the rich exchange between cultures, from a Buddhist temple with Arabic inscriptions to a remote community where Jewish sojourners had intermarried with the indigenous people but their vestiges remain in a local fondness for chicken soup.

Much of Shen Wei’s dance method centers on breathing. His experience in Tibet furnishes a way to talk about translating place into body language.

“Tibet is close to the sky,” he remarked at Syracuse Stage. “The altitude made it hard for me to breathe there. So I began to see how the altitude affects the length of the breath and your center of gravity. And I was inspired there not by music but by the chanting of the monks and nuns because of their breathing.”

Later in the program, Egan asked a Newhouse photojournalism student named Alex to come out on stage and snap the audience.

“She’s been documenting the residency and you’re part of that,” said Egan, who added that Shen Wei Dance Arts “visits 25-30 cities a year and the reception we’ve gotten here is so uncommon, so robust, so – yes!”

“Every now and then,” says Carol Charles, “if we are lucky, someone or something crosses one’s path that is truly extraordinary.”

A shorter version of this appears in the March 26, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. Photo by Steve Sartori, used courtesy of Syracuse University. See Ellen Blalock’s video of the March 11th Shen Wei rehearsal at Cathedral School on-line at, which links to blog entries made during the Syracuse residency. Also check out Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Shen Wei Dance Arts, Syracuse University, Syracuse Stage, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

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