Shen Wei complicates personal space at the Park Avenue Armory

'Undivided Divided.' (Stephanie Berger.)
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At 9:30 P.M. on Tuesday night, the people flowing into the cavernous Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory for the premiere of Shen Wei Dance Arts’s Undivided Divided (on view through Sunday) were greeted with a sign: “You may step forward. Please remove your shoes.”

In front of them, thirty-two dancers, clad only in skin-colored spandex shorts, were arranged like checkers on a large rectangular grid, each twisting and contorting within a seven-by-seven-foot gray square. Unoccupied squares contained either a small pool of paint, in the front half of the hall, or a slickly manufactured “environment”—such as a life-size clear plastic cube or a bed of bright yellow bungee cords—in the rear. Shiny white paths separated the squares, contributing to a Apple Store aesthetic.

Chinese-born Shen Wei, best known for having choreographed the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, developed Undivided Divided during a sixteen-month residency at the Armory. The immersive, site-specific dance piece is set to a shifting electronic score by So Percussion. Over some thirty minutes, the dancers interacted with the paint, the environments, and with one another, leaving traces of their movement explorations on the grid and on their bodies. The audience flowed through the space at will, observing individual dancers from a foot away or surveying the scene from perimeter benches and stadium-style seating.

The near-nudity of the dancers drew focus immediately to their bodies: from up close, one could observe how with each movement muscles bulged, tendons twisted, skin stretched; and you became keenly aware of the uniqueness of each dancer’s physical features and movement patterns. At times, technological recordings of bodily processes, such as heart monitor and ultrasound readings, were projected onto empty squares from above, emphasizing (a little too neatly) this focus on the body and the traces it leaves behind.

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But as mesmerizing as the dancers’ movements were, building the piece around the interaction between mostly unclothed performer and clothed spectator brought none of the shock it was clearly meant to elicit. Many of the themes of Undivided Divided—physical constriction, eye contact between performer and spectator, the body as canvas—have been explored in performance art for decades. Following a spate of recent shows (Marina Abromovic’s MoMA retrospective being the most notable example), such performative actions have achieved a kind of commodified feel—last month’s L.A. MOCA annual gala even tapped Abramovic for sideshow-like entertainments during the event.

But apart from the somewhat stale feeling of the setup, it was the lack of stage-focused environment, always key to Shen Wei’s work, that was most disappointing. In a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon, Shen Wei said that the idea for Undivided Divided was motivated by a desire to surround people completely with art, such that all their senses were activated and they experienced on all sides the flow of energy from movement. Yet only a solitary walk through Undivided Divided seemed capable of yielding such an experience. As it was, fellow audience members distracted too much from such purity of purpose. A portion of one’s attention had to commit to negotiating communal space (though the effect was not nearly as distracting as in Chelsea’s recent immersive dance-theater hit Sleep No More, where one had to elbow their way in to view the action).

Ironically, a much stronger sense of immersion could be found earlier in the evening from a work of Shen Wei’s that preserves the fourth wall. Folding, a work from 2000, creates a vivid alien world exquisitely drawn in rich red, luscious black, and sheeny white, with engrossing inhabitants and rituals. The gorgeous set, costumes, make-up, and choreography—each painstakingly designed by Shen Wei—join to draw the audience in fully. In the final scene, a group of red figures stands motionless in the rear of the Drill Hall, in a pool of eery yellow light surrounded by darkness, and Shen Wei finishes a solo in the front of the hall by collapsing to the ground in a pool of crimson. It was breathtaking.

Both Folding and Wei’s 2003 Rite of Spring, which opened the evening, explore the dynamic between the group and the individual through such moments. Each makes extensive use of sequences where groups of dancers sweep across the stage, moving in unison, like herds of antelope or schools of fish, connected by instinct more than humanity. In Rite of Spring, with its tonal palette of grays and slate blues, mechanistic group motions contrast with frantically twisting solos and stiff-necked individuals skittering around, evoking the depersonalization of Chinese industrialization.

Undivided Divided takes up these issues of group and individual dynamics as well. Dancers mostly remain isolated on their small islands, some even constrained within structures like the plastic cube. But at times they move as one, descending to the floor at the same time, stepping into neighboring squares in sync, or reflecting one another's style of movement, if not specific gestures. Thus what’s evoked is the sense of individuals simultaneously divided from and connected to (or “undivided” from) one another, their environments, and their audience. Yet the sprawl of the spectator-filled grid made the overall effect muted, unsure. One could take in only one or two squares at a time, missing out on whatever more subtle group dynamics might have been at work.

Still there was a certain surprise and delight to catching performers at different points in time: when the view cleared, a dancer who had been slowly stretching yellow bungee cords with deliberate foot movements a moment before was suddenly cocooned beneath them; upon turning around, another dancer was frozen in a moment of ecstasy, mouth open, whole body stretched towards something intangible, sweat dripping.

For Shen Wei, embracing such chance elements represents a new direction. His work has always exhibited total control over every element on view, as with Folding. Undivided Divided, he said, had been a challenge, a “risky piece.” The risk pays off in at least one way: by allowing in chance elements and the intercession of the audience, the confrontation with the nature of individual and group movement is heightened, stressed.

Toward the end of the piece on Tuesday, the audience had massed near the front half of the hall for no discernible reason, apparently following their own subliminal cues, like the red figures in Folding. In the program book, Shen Wei is quoted as saying about Undivided Divided, “I am forever fascinated by what the brain knows and what it may not be aware of.” Of all the movements and interactions in the piece, the crowd’s abrupt shift was the one to which, perhaps, Shen Wei’s statement best applied.