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Reaching for the Poetic

Nine hundred years ago in China, a renowned poet-artist named Su Dongpo (1037-1101) lived in Meishan, a city in Sichuan Province. He lived during the Song Dynasty, a prosperous period known for the proliferation of poetry and sophistication in visual arts underpinned by classical Chinese philosophy. Today, everyone in China knows Su Dongpo’s poems—children memorize them in school and sing them as songs. In the poet’s hometown, now a modern day city of about 3 million people, a dance company formed in 2020 called Meishan Song and Dance Theatre. As inheritors of the Dongpo legacy, the company wanted to create a work around their cultural icon, but they had no one equipped for the epic challenge. So they approached the Beijing national arts team at China Oriental Performing Arts Group Co., Ltd., known for their large-scale productions using an artistic paradigm to promote cultural learning and exchange. The Beijing group recommended famed Chinese choreographer and visual artist Shen Wei from their experience working with him on the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing. In 2021, they began work on “Dongpo: Life in Poems,” and the production premiered in Shanghai in 2023. With additional support from the American Dance Festival, the show recently premiered in North America at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and then in New York at Lincoln Center.

Performance

Shen Wei: “Dongpo: Life in Poems”

Place

Lincoln Center, New York, NY, March 16, 2024

Words

Karen Greenspan

Shen Wei's “Dongpo: Life in Poems.” Photograph courtesy of “Dongpo: Life In Poems”

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The work, lavish in scale, has Shen Wei’s artistic signature on almost every aspect. Working with 24 dancers from the Meishan and Beijing dance companies and a team of high level creatives, he is responsible for the choreography, script, video, and stage and costume design. The Meishan troupe found a creator for their production that channeled Dongpo himself. In a recent phone interview, Shen Wei reminded me that like Dongpo, he is also a painter, a calligrapher, a poet, a guqin (Chinese zither) player, and a cook! Indeed, Dongpo’s name is associated with several culinary delights.

How does one translate poetry and the lived experience of the poet onto the stage? Shen Wei has many talents and connections and appears to have used them all. Exquisite painted screens (three by Shen Wei, one by Su Dongpo, and another by Zhao Chang from the Song Dynasty) were lit by the talented lighting designer Xiao Lihe, responsible for lighting the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony. This contributed to the visual poetry and refined scenic experience of the 12 selected Dongpo poems. Some of the staged effects approached the sublime—especially the opening. The theater’s grand curtain was replaced with an equally expansive screen with Su Dongpo’s ink painting of bamboo and stone. As the house lights went down, a spotlight behind the screen illuminated the Dongpo character slowly climbing toward the upper reaches of the visible space. The light extinguished and his position corresponded to the top of the mountainlike rock in the painting. 

Shen Wei's “Dongpo: Life in Poems.” Photograph courtesy of “Dongpo: Life In Poems”

The talents of calligrapher and seal engraver Yang Tao integrated the printed word as part of the visual beauty as four Chinese letter characters as well as the English title were projected onto the screen along with the first of Su Dongpo’s poems. The verse: “Who says an older man can’t return to his youth?” was brought to life as the words disappeared. The painted screen lifted to reveal another screen, black in color. A circular cut-out in the upper space, bounded on each side by a painted golden moon, was inhabited by a bare-chested dancer wrapped from the waist down in white fabric that rooted him to his place. Illuminated as if by moonlight, his torso and arms reached, folded, caressed, and spiraled in a gush of fluidity—painting the space with a sensual calligraphy of the body. Resonant tones of traditional guqin music bathed the visuals in sonic perfection.

The second act was a riveting representation of the poet’s claim of clear perception of worldly existence with its transience and numerous heroes. The title screen lifted, and the stage was filled with medium-sized, clear cubes painted with red Chinese lettering. One, two, and then seven dancers emerged from the lit cubes wearing burgundy colored, full body unitards to perform precise, angular poses sitting atop the blocks. Eventually, their movements impelled them off the blocks and then back on top of them to perform a unison sequence of contemporary abstract movements. Seven more dancers emerged to push their blocks forward into visibility and activated a variety of movements on and off the blocks. With a blackout, the dancers disappeared; then the cubes were lit so that the letters appeared to be white. 

As the cubes were removed, Shen Wei’s painting “Untitled No. 8” came fully into view—its black, white, and gray swirls roiling with energy. The dancers returned wearing sky blue silk tunics over their burgundy unitards. Inscribing circular, spirally movements in space and on the floor, they danced and tumbled in the familiar Shen Wei vocabulary. As more dancers joined like a gathering storm, one figure (Dongpo, danced by Su Peng) remained upstage and apart, slowly revolving around himself. Dongpo eventually joined the group and set off a wave-like pattern of bodily connection among the dancers in a horizontal line downstage.

Shen Wei's “Dongpo: Life in Poems.” Photograph courtesy of “Dongpo: Life In Poems”

The verses: “Life and death have separated us for ten years,” and “Last night a dream brought me back to my native home, where I saw you . . . ” inspired a stunning dreamscape.  Downstage of a giant set of risers spanning the width of the stage, Dongpo slowly traversed across like a sleepwalker to a recorded operatic composition by acclaimed Chinese contemporary composer Chen Qigang. Clusters of dancers were positioned in two geometric formations on the risers as female soloist Liu Jie languidly rolled down the center of the set. Upon reaching the bottom, she stood to dip her very long ponytail in a bowl of black ink. Then dragging her ink-drenched hair along the downstage strip that Dongpo had just walked, she bent and rolled while painting flowing calligraphy along their common path. The accompanying high-pitched Chinese opera vocals sounded like the wailing cries of a ghost. At the same time, Dongpo appeared at the top of the risers. He descended the stairs and followed after his beloved in a trance of longing.

The traditional tones of guqin music played live by Zhao Xiaoxia in solo interludes as well as accompanying several scenes graced the production with a stroke of classic simplicity. It also provided another sphere of understanding of the aesthetics and pastimes of Su Dongpo and his milieu. 

This was all a very promising start. But as the 90-minute program progressed, I had the impression that I was watching an endless parade of beautiful images—like a prolonged dream or pageant of costumes (all beautiful and hand-painted from Shen Wei’s designs). Shen Wei’s paintings, by contrast, are powerful expressionist compositions awash with the chaos and fury of nature. But the narrative arc of this production remained flat—lacking tension and emotional intensity to contrast with the abundance of pleasantness. The poems are, as Shen Wei explained, “emotionally relevant expressions of love, death, struggle, and joy.” Admittedly, my opinion may be colored by my cultural conditioning and biases. But from a cursory search into Su Dongpo’s life, I learned that he was also a statesman, banished several times from his hometown because his political views conflicted with the prevailing powers. There clearly was drama in his life, and I would be very interested to see and feel that. 

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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