Choreographing Zeitgeist: Shen Wei, Italy's MM and Toronto's Chris House

Edgy productions cut -- or grate -- near the bone

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So at least we know where we’re going with this. But Morelli and his dancers get us there with hideously virtuosic panache in scene after scene of the shapeliest cruelty. Dancers pair up in ever shifting constellations of hate, wrenching and wrestling, glowering and snarling, ganging up on each other and then – just as arbitrarily – switching sides to sell-out their erstwhile allies.

Nuvia Valestri’s costumes lend an extra dash of sadomasochistic flair – all ribbed, red bodices, bared torsos and stylish harnesses-leather strapping. Don’t suppose, though, that these latter accoutrements are mere Heavy Metal fashion accessories. Their functionality becomes all too explicit in the final scene, when the fragmented War of Each Against All coalesces into a focused All Against One lynching – exquisitely choreographed and gut-wrenchingly brutal.

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Equally exquisite was Shen Wei’s take on the same score, but the approach was far less visceral and more cerebral. Far from a sanguinary Sacre, this version is a formal – almost ceremonious – ritual, a Rite of Spring.

So instead of abattoir red, Shen (an accomplished painter as well as a choreographer) daubs his production in cool shades of black, white and grey. He’s even covered the whole stage with a slightly off-kilter matrix in these hues, like a smudgy palimpsest of successive hopscotch grids.

Dancers, costumed in the same palette, draw up alongside this game board and then, one by one, glide out to take up their opening gambit positions. All this in total silence – nearly 10 minutes of it – before sounding the first note of Stravinsky. And then we’re treated not to the full-blooded orchestral score, but rather an etiolated four-hand piano transcription.

Which highlights in sharper relief Stravinsky’s interlocking rhythms and melodic lines. Shen deploys his dancers accordingly, creating contrapuntal ground-and-figure moirés.

He might string a septet of them diagonally across the stage like an ebbing line of beach spume while others in the background flail like a kelp forest. Or maybe he’ll set them ticking in an intricate clockwork of syncopated tempos and ambits.

Or, in the climactic throes of Stravinsky’s score – where Morelli had his whole ring of dancers closing in for the kill – Shen likewise arrays his troupe in a circle. But in his Rite of Spring, Shen has his cast unfurling outwards, rather than clenching inwards, like heliotropic petals reaching for the Spring sun.

Deep dive into Asian iconography. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Even more ceremonious – and more painterly – was Folding, the second item on the Shen Wei programme. The slow-motion action unfolds to the solemn strains of Tibetan chants and an instrumental meditation for bells and string quartet by the late Anglo-Orthodox composer John Tavener.

Visually, the production draws on an eclectic range of mostly Asian influences. With gesso-white body make-up, affectless mask-like faces and flowing, floor-length skirts, the dancers call to mind the stick-activated puppets of Indochinese or Indonesian epics – maybe wayang golek.

All the more so as they go in for elaborate, hand-wringing wayang-style gesticulations and, like wayang puppets, their crania are enlarged with sac-like protuberances abaft that serve as visual counterweights for their athletically dazzling contortions.

The whole tableau is played out against a double-billboard sized backdrop, hand painted by Shen Wei himself, drawn from an 18th century miniature masterpiece of guppies in a bowl.

Black-skirted characters glide onto the stage mostly in pairs or even trios. Swaddled in all that drapery, they pile onto each other to create unsettling multi-headed, multi-limbed, scuttling or towering chimeras straight out of some fanciful Chinese bestiary. Red-skirted acolytes minister to these demiurges like officiating priests.

The whole production has a vaguely sub-aqueous feel, as though moving through a medium of preternatural viscosity. To enhance the effect, lighting designer David Ferri gradually dims the illumination until the backdrop vanishes and the clumped dancers are barely visible in outline, seeming levitating before us in some abysmal gloom.

And then the lights come back as, two-by-two, the dancers come out for their bows, their faces still expressionless as ever and their gestures ceremoniously stylized. We’re all still clapping as the final curtain is drawn.

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