One of Lincoln Center Festival's great attributes is that it simultaneously keeps its finger on the pulse of both the new and the classic. This summer's Festival will be enriched with three dance companies of widely‹and sometimes wildly‹differing sensibilities.
Returning for the third consecutive year (which is unprecedented in the Festival's history) will be Shen Wei Dance Arts, in a world premiere by the Chinese-born choreographer. Although the company makes its home in New York City, it spends most of its performing time touring internationally, and so the Festival provides New York with its only chance to view Shen Wei's work. Another Festival veteran will be one of dance's national treasures, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, displaying, as ever, its own brand of classicism. And rounding out the threesome will be the innovative London-based Random Dance, under the direction of Wayne McGregor.
In an era when ideas cross oceans and cultures mix more readily than ever, fusion has become a hot-button term. But before that term became popular, Shen Wei was a natural fusionist, a profound example of East meets West, blending his extensive grounding in Chinese opera with a modern dance sensibility. His artistic and theatrical talents are multiple, and all inform his stagecraft and choreography. Little known is the fact that he is an accomplished actor of impressive abilities. Better known is the fact that he is also a painter. Festival viewers witnessed Shen Wei's taste for the visual arts in last year's Connect/Transfer at Alice Tully Hall, a work in which his dancers actually traced patterns with paint on the white canvas floor as they danced. The backdrop for Shen Wei's new piece, MAP, is made from his own sketches for each section of the dance.
MAP is the artist's largest work to date, using 17 dancers, and it will appear in a larger venue as well, the New York State Theater (on July 19, 23, and 24). Set to The Desert Music, Steve Reich's expansive and mesmerizing piece for orchestra and chorus, the 48-minute work has seven sections, for which the choreographer says he has found "seven different ways to dance." The shifting landscapes of Shen Wei's new work chart his own kind of map of the movement world, in physical and intense dancing, often characterized by silky, flowing movement. And while MAP is highly physical, the other piece on his program, a New York premiere, is the exquisitely beautiful Near the Terrace Part I, from 2000, a slow moving work with suggestions of the eternal, set to Arvo Pärt's delicate, haunting Für Alina, Spiegel im Spiegel.
If Shen Wei's finely nuanced work sometimes suggests a mysterious whisper in the dusk, Wayne McGregor's AtaXia shouts with the raw power of action. McGregor's 12-year-old Random Dance has become a staple on the British scene and is now the company in residence at the venerable Sadler's Wells Theatre, with its long legacy of providing a home for British dance. The company's performances in the Festival at the State Theater (July 21 and 22) mark its second appearance in New York.
McGregor is a cheeky child of his time, concerned with electronics and technology and with pushing the envelope. His AtaXia takes its title from the neurological condition that results in loss of control of movement; it is also a play on the word "attack," and attack the movement his dancers do, with choreography that is quirky, disjointed, kinetic, balletic, and speedy. AtaXia was originally inspired by work McGregor did with Cambridge University-based neurologists. But the dance itself has taken on a high-energy life of its own, with swirling lighting patterns, video projections, and neon costumes, all of it performed to Bang on a Can composer Michael Gordon's churning score, Trance, played live by the British group Icebreaker. (Icebreaker also appears on its own at the Allen Room in the Frederick P. Rose Hall, July 23.)
If McGregor is now shaking up the British scene with no-holds-barred movement and cutting-edge technology, Merce Cunningham is the prototype mover and shaker, the agent-provocateur, American-style. The octogenarian choreographer is one of the dance world's most cherished icons, both here and abroad.
Through the decades Cunningham has challenged and enlarged our concepts of what dance is and of the music‹or sound‹which accompanies it. He is a groundbreaker who has opened artistic doors to three generations of post-modernists.
The work on view at this summer's Festival, Ocean, had its genesis in a conversation Cunningham's lifelong partner and collaborator, the composer John Cage, had with mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell speculated that if James Joyce had written anything after Finnegan's Wake, it would have been about the ocean. Even set against Cunningham's long record of artistic experimentation, two things about Ocean (at the Rose Theater, July 12-16) are unusual in the Cunningham oeuvre. One is that it is in the round. In fact, Ocean was performed outdoors at the inaugural 1996 Festival in Damrosch Park, but the advent of the new Rose Theater enables the Festival to bring the work indoors. The other unusual aspect is the physical positioning of audience and musicians. Cage's concept was that the orchestral music would be performed live by a ring of 112 musicians, inside which the audience would sit, and inside that ring would be the dancers. Ocean was conceived in 1991, and Cage died before the piece could be realized in a satisfactory venue. His concept is realized here by composer Andrew Culver's music, enhanced by the electronic score, drawn from ocean sounds conceived by the late David Tudor, Cage and Cunningham's longtime associate. Cunningham has for some years worked out movement on a computer, and his dancers bring to life his computerized figures. For Ocean, he has found movement that suggests aquatic life, and his 15 dancers move in schools, large and small, in the ocean that Cunningham and Cage and their collaborators have created for them.
Three companies, three sensibilities from three continents‹and New Yorkers are all the more fortunate for being able to view these diverse worlds without traveling further than Lincoln Center.
Amanda Smith is a longtime contributor to Dance Magazine.