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December 11th, 2008


by Mark DeMaio

Connect Transfer.

Here in the States the opening ceremony of the 2008 summer Olympics held in Beijing was the most watched opening ceremonies of an Olympics not held in the US, and the second biggest television audience since the Super Bowl last year. More important than the total number of people who watched it across the world was what they watched.

Never in the history of the Olympics has a ceremony been so spectacular, so mesmerizing and so talked about. One of the men responsible for the grandeur and spectacle of this historic event was choreographer, artist, and photographer Shen Wei.

Shen Wei is the creator and choreographer of the internationally lauded Shen Wei Dance Arts in New York City. This artist’s work as a choreographer is so groundbreaking and new, so original and fascinating that one forgets you’re actually watching people; rather, the viewer is transported into a work of art in motion. This December Shen Wei will stage one of his most famous pieces, “Connect Transfer,” at the High Holy ground of dance, The Judson Church here in New York City. This piece combines all of Shen Wei’s many talents into one work. There will be only six performances and those lucky enough to get a ticket will experience a work of art without compare. In “Connect Transfer” the dancers dance on canvas, painting with their hands and feet as they go–artists in motion, creating art. At the end of the performance the canvas is cut into pieces and sold to the audience with the proceeds going to a dancers heath foundation. Shen Wei is the recipient of more awards, accolades and titles like genius (literally a genius–Shen Wei was awarded the MacArthur foundations Genius Award in 2007) than we have room to list.

A couple of weeks ago Shen Wei was gracious enough to take time out of his unbelievably busy schedule to do this interview. I have met a lot of artists and performers over the years but rarely have I met so ethereal a being, almost other-worldy in his grace. When meeting Shen Wei, you immediately realize you’re not in the presence of just another person, though his humble ways would have you think otherwise.

Shen Wei

SoHo Journal: You have very creative parents; did they push you towards the arts or did you go there on your own?

Shen Wei: As A child I grew up around singing and dancing, I’d watch the performances all the time. I saw my father directing all the productions, and you go to the back stage anytime you want. I could try on the costumes and the makeup, which was so much fun for us as kids. You grow up around actors and singers and they become really close friends. It’s like growing up in a fairy tale. It was really fun and I have good memories. So it was always around me and in me.

You have brothers and sister, and are they artists as well?

I have two brothers and one is a designer and he does calligraphy as well, and the other is a painter.

SJ: Are they in America?

SW: No, they are in China.

So many artists. Have you ever collaborated with them on a project?

No but one thing I did ask my father’s help with was in 2004. I started work on a project that had to do with a Chinese opera; I wanted to form the music and story to make it more contemporary modern dance. It premiered last year at Lincoln Center Festival at the State Theater. My father spent his entire life working in the Chinese Opera, so I asked his advice and he also helped me change and add to the script. That’s the only thing I’ve done with my family.

What Year did you come to America?

SW: 1995.

SJ: Did you speak English when you arrived?

SW: No, not at all.

Were you intimidated or electrified by New York City?

I was so happy to move to New York. Even now, I’m so successful now, but I think back, and my first few years were the happiest. It’s so exciting, you like everything and you can hear everything, how New York City plays. Now everyone has an iPod, you listen to the city play, the sound of the train, the music, take the subway if you’re happy, walk on the street, the weather–everything was different those first one or two years, it was one of the happiest times for me. Later it get to be more difficult; you want to be an artist, you need to find work and then it’s hard to survive in New York City. But I’m still really happy.

Do you feel you could have achieved the level of success that you have, had you not come to America?

SW: Of course not, because you know, we know NYC is the center of culture and of the arts. New York has lead the world for so many decades in the contemporary arts, and to be in the contemporary arts then this is the place to be for an artist because you need to grow with the culture, you need to feel what’s going on in the modern cities and this is the leader of the modern cities and contemporary cultures. Of course you can be a real artist in other cities as well, but for me this is a city that represents all the world’s cultures, not only American culture and American art; it’s very international and that makes a huge difference for me. I just don’t get as much from other countries and other cities as I get in New York City.

SJ: When you came here, was the goal to start your own dance company, Shen Wei Dance Arts?

SW: No, I never thought I would have my own company or be in this moment. I’m not the kind of person who plans ahead, I live moment by moment and try and do the best for today and maybe plan a month or two ahead, with different projects. I never make a decision to say where I’m going to be in a few years from now. I have no idea what my position is going to be or where my life is going to be. It’s like when I came to New York I was thinking how I can study and educate myself more in different ways? When I came here I never even thought of becoming a choreographer, because I came from China, and once you come here I realized there are so many thing I don’t know, and when you don’t understand this country, you think you’re SO good, but the more I understand about culture, the more I understand how much I didn’t know. In the beginning you only know yourself and you think you’re very good, but once you know more, once you know other cultures and other artists, what they are doing, you feel then that you have so much to grow. I never thought I’d be surviving as a choreographer in this city, or even be one, I didn’t plan when coming here.

SJ: So, how did it come about?

SW: When you are an artist and you’re creative, you keep pushing yourself and challenging yourself, things will just come to you.

I believe that if you work hard enough and really devote yourself to your art, you’re going to have success– you may not become Andy Warhol, but you will have success; do you agree?

You never know, you could be the next Andy Warhol but you have to keep doing it; it’s about passion, if your passion is strong enough to get over problems and struggles. I know a lot of people who have come here from China but they can’t stay more than three or four years, they have to switch and do something else, they give up their passion, it’s just a matter of how much you can handle it.

How many people are in Shen Wei Dance Arts?

Right now we have 14 dancers but I also have some dancers who have left the company for whatever reasons, and they come back as guests, so sometimes we have up to 17 dancers, and sometimes we have only 12.

Are there other Shen Wei Dance Art companies set up in other cities around the world?

We tour internationally a lot, we have a lot of fans in Europe; we tour more in Europe than in the United States, but there isn’t a second company set up anywhere.

SJ: Has the success of the company changed you as an artist? Has it forced you to think more commercially, or do you just create?

SW: The way society is now, it has a way of pushing artists in a way to fit into the culture. What I mean is, you have to push artists, not like in the old days with Van Gough or Gaugain, those artists could do whatever they wanted, but now it’s harder to survive–you have to balance your artwork, and still figure out a way to make the company survive. So this does push me day by day which means you have to understand the difference, you have to be more rational, it does change people more–when you have to survive in society, you have a responsibility for other humans. I have the company, how can I adapt my work to show it to a larger audience, tour internationally; it means I have to make a work that can survive but a work that will generate the money to pay the dancers, to secure the company. It makes you think of how you can survive.

SJ: It’s no longer just about art, it’s about the business of art?

Yes, but the business of art makes you more flexible, you adjust your vision to keep the company going, but in another way it allows me to see. You know, when you have a company you have a staff, like the administrative people…they give so much feeling, and they do things that give me the time to think about new projects. They give me the time to build a new piece, a big piece, so in a way it’s much easier than if I were trying to do everything myself.

Since the Olympics thrust you into an international spotlight, is it easier now for you to finance projects, therefore freeing you artistically, letting you do whatever you want?

(laughs) Everyone thinks that way. Now everyone thinks you’re a big star, everyone knows your work. But for me, my life hasn’t really changed at all. Maybe people know you, they say they saw the opening of the Olympics and they liked it, but it doesn’t mean people are going to give you money to do another big project or do whatever you want, there is no organization out there like that. People will not judge you by only one thing—foundations or festivals, if they give you a project they don’t look at one thing, they look at what you’ve done in the past, how you can handle a project, but these decisions are made by committee, not by just one person. Of course the Olympics have helped. People know you, they know what you did, it makes it easier to know me, to know what I’m doing.

SJ: You’ve been labeled a genius. Does that weigh on you, does it create extra pressure for you when you’re creating something new?

When you’re an artist and you’re creating new works you have to have passion because you want to make it the best that you can. You want to make it as clear as you can and you want to do things you’ve never done before. You want to make things that have never existed before, you want to make new things; you don’t want to repeat yourself. At the same time you want people to feel these things are new, make them communicate, become part of the culture and to inspire other human beings–this is my number one goal when I make new work. That’s the pressure. People might think of me one way right now, but I’m still me from twenty years ago, and twenty years from now I’ll still be me. What’s important is the amount of work you put into your job. The fame, your name in the papers, or people say you’re a genius, whatever, it doesn’t really get to you. I forget what people call me, you have enough pressure to create something new. It’s like when I see my name huge on a poster, it’s not like it’s even my name, I have to say, “oh that’s me” it doesn’t really matter, I didn’t make that happen, I didn’t print that poster. The fame is just that moment, but you’re really living in your work.

So since the fame isn’t real, you put more pressure on yourself than anyone could put on you?

Yes, that right, that’s correct.

You’re a choreographer, you design the costumes and makeup for your company. You are also a painter, and a photographer. Other than dance is there one favorite medium you prefer to express yourself in?

Other than dancing…painting. I’m a painter, these are the two major passions that fit my personality. When I am painting I can sit alone for hours, up to ten hours. I can go into my own fantasyland and make things happen perfectly on the canvas. I do that all the time; sometimes I lock myself in my room, sometimes for two months, to paint. I don’t even go out. I just order in deliveries. These are the two things for my natural and physical expression.

SJ: Would you ever consider doing something really commercial, something like Broadway?

Yes, I think it would be fun. My idea of commercial is different than the way most people think. I’ve been approached for Broadway shows, and commercials, but most of the time I say no because most people don’t think it can be commercial and be art; like pop culture, it doesn’t have to be cheesy to be commercial. When I think of commercial I just think of how much it communicates with the audience. The audience has to feel excited and if the audience is excited then something can become commercially successful, and if the audience doesn’t feel excited, no matter how hard you try to make it commercial they won’t buy it. But if it’s artistic the audience will be excited about what’s happening, they feel excited and inspired and they feel the energy, they feel communicated. Of course it depends on the amount of audience you can communicate to. Everyone has eyes and ears and they want to see and hear something interesting, beautiful and comfortable. Art doesn’t have to be hurtful and painful, it can be enjoyable and still be really artistic. Remember when you talk about the difference between the masters Picasso and Matisse, people thought that Matisse was so sweet and commercial, but that doesn’t mean his work wasn’t as strong and as artistic, even though they might have thought it would be easier to put Matisse in your living room instead of Picasso. It’s just different, a different way to approach things. It depends on how you do it. You talk about rock n’ roll, I like rock n’ roll because its exciting, it gets people involved; young people have something in common, it’s a way to communicate with other human beings, they have that energy in their bodies, every human being has got that, like happiness or sadness or excitement, everyone has that. So something really artistic can be commercial as well if it communicates.

SJ: Do you have a desire to direct films?

SW: Yep. But I need to educate myself. I won’t do anything until I know I can do a really good job. Then I’ll have the passion because I’ll know everything I can, I’ll know how to do it. It’s a goal one day. It’s like with dancers, I learned everything about the human body, so through visual elements, and my paintings and my background, and with music and dance, one day I can be a film director. But not right now. I need to keep studying until the day I think I’m ready; of course you need the connections, the people who can get you money to do it, those who believe you can do it. I’m just not ready now. I don’t want to be a repeat of another filmmaker or another artist. I want to do something that will draw on my abilities and draw on my interests, my interest in the human body.

SJ: What directors do you like?

I like David Lynch, I think he’s the most interesting, although he’s not that popular. I think his movies, they are not like anyone else’s. He has a really clear vision. Also you have another 100,000 directors making the same movie in Hollywood. Also Peter Greenaway, people who use film in a different way. They deliver something new to the audience.

SJ: What’s next for Shen Wei Dance Arts?

SJ: For the end of October we are performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Then in December we are doing a new version of Connect Transfer at the Judson Church in Washington Square. There will be six performances, and it’s going to be a very artistic set-up. The audience will sit and stand around the stage and the dancers will perform in the center. It will be in three parts. The first part is where the audience will be very close to the dancers and they can see and learn the concept of the bodies’ movements. It’ll be like going to a gallery to watch an artist paint. Then we will start the show with music Connect Transfer. The audience will sit around a canvas because this piece has to do with other art forms, architecture and sculpture and painting. When the dancers dance they will leave marks on the floor like they are painting, like they are using a brush, like one of the segments of the Olympics opening ceremony, that was inspired by this piece. They will dance on canvas, 40 x 40 feet, maybe bigger, and a new canvas every night for the dancers to create a new painting. It’s so interesting and exciting and people get so involved in the moment at the birth of art. The third section is where we cut the painting and sell pieces to the audience. The money goes to many good dance causes, mainly to maintain the dancers’ health and their bodies, health insurance. Judson Church has been home to so many experimental works, its been used over the years by so many famous dancers. It’s going to be fun to be back here after performing in so many big houses. It’s exciting to do something for a young audience; maybe we can inspire people to feel something. It’s December 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th. What’s really exciting is we are having two matinees for high school students who are involved in the arts. It’s so great to inspire young people in a positive and creative way.

SJ: Last question: what do you do in New York to relax, if you have time to relax?

It’s so hard to find time to do anything; once you get so successful there are so many things you have to get done everyday. Its so hard to find time; I do like to go to the movies, but I was only able to see one movie this whole year– The Dark Knight. I wanted to see Heath Ledger, the story didn’t really matter to me. But I walk to the studio or to meetings and in New York it’s exciting just to be here, to be walking down the street.

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