Renowned Chinese choreographer, dancer, painter and designer Shen Wei is known for dynamic contemporary performances. His staging of “Second Visit to the Empress,” this weekend at the Power Center, exhibits his command of dance’s vocabulary – and traditional Chinese opera to boot.

Angela Cesere

The Shen Wei Dance Art’s production – for which Shen Wei choreographed and directed as well as designed the costumes, makeup and sets – showcases both contemporary dance and a canonical Beijing opera. Performances will run today though Sunday.

There are distinctions between a Western understanding of “opera” and the broader understanding of an Eastern theatergoer. While Chinese opera certainly stresses music – the Chinese word for “theater” is translated as “play-song” – Chinese opera regularly intersperses dance, martial arts, action sequences and speaking into performances.

“Empress,” though, is an atypical piece in its sheer volume of music, its challenging score and its marked lack of action. Because of these idiosyncrasies, there has been no change in staging in the last 200 years, despite the work’s standing as a pillar of the Chinese opera repertory and a necessary stop on a student’s road to opera stardom.

But Shen Wei, who has studied Chinese opera since she was 9, attests that it was, in fact, “Empress’s” musicality that drew him to his first staging of a Chinese opera. In a statement on the artist’s website, Shen Wei credits the “rich music and singing rather than the story line” to his interest in “Empress.” His lead vocalists are certainly up to the difficult task: the production’s four lead performers are widely considered the most luminous of the Beijing opera world.

Joseph Lam, professor of music in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, said audiences will grow familiar with the melody during the course of the performance, since traditional Chinese opera music consists of standardized structures with variations on the same melody. “Once you get to know it, it’s very easy listening,” he said.

And then there are the dancers: 12 characterless performers using movement to interpret the music. David Rolston, associate professor of Chinese language and literature, summed up the dancers’ roles in the production: “They work like the vizualizers on a computer when you play a CD,” he said. “The dancers embody the dynamics of the music, when it’s soft, when it’s loud – that is what the dancers do for me.”

The dancers’ movements are carefully choreographed, despite appearances of relaxed arms and legs or improvisation. Moreover, gestures are strongly physical without surrendering fluidity and suggest a delight in the exploration of every limb.

In the strange and beautiful world of the production, dancers and singers co-exist but do not interact. “There are two shows happening at the same time,” Lam said. ” Shen Wei uses traditional music alongside very modern content.”

Rolston went a step further and attests that there are actually three shows happening simultaneously, when one also considers Shen Wei’s careful costuming, staging and visual design.

“Empress” is merely the first of many upcoming University events that encourage reflection on the East-West dichotomy. In conjunction with its ChinaNow theme year, at least six other Asian-inspired productions are about to hit a University Musical Society stage. Rolston, for one, is glad that Chinese theater is being incorporated into the yearlong event.

“A modern, economic perspective on China is too narrow, we need to also study history and humanities,” he said.

Added Lam: “It’s a challenge for the audience to think about the East and the West, old and new, but that is the fun part.”

Second Visit to the Princess

Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m.


At the Power Center

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