Jerwood Proms, Sadler's Wells, London

Travels in time and space
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The Independent Culture

True novelty is surprisingly rare in contemporary dance. Even the most outlandish new work usually has roots in something seen before. So what does it take to create a real frisson of the unknown - a visit from another planet? Enter 36-year-old Shen Wei, born and raised in China, whose formal training was in calligraphy and Chinese Opera - a world away from the New York City life he now lives. A founder member of China's first ever modern dance company before falling foul of the political regime, Shen Wei doesn't so much hark back to these experiences as feed them into alien dreamscapes.

True novelty is surprisingly rare in contemporary dance. Even the most outlandish new work usually has roots in something seen before. So what does it take to create a real frisson of the unknown - a visit from another planet? Enter 36-year-old Shen Wei, born and raised in China, whose formal training was in calligraphy and Chinese Opera - a world away from the New York City life he now lives. A founder member of China's first ever modern dance company before falling foul of the political regime, Shen Wei doesn't so much hark back to these experiences as feed them into alien dreamscapes.

According to him, a choreographer's job is "to take dancers to a place where movement hasn't yet existed." And that's a pretty accurate summary of his UK debut show, a double bill brought over by Dance Umbrella as the first of the festival's Jerwood Proms, the stalls seats at Sadler's Wells removed to allow hundreds of promenaders to see the show for the price of a drink and a bag of nuts.

Stravinsky's score The Rite of Spring is common currency these days, but Shen has dumped the cultural baggage that comes with it. This isn't a dance about the violence of nature. It's purely a geometric response to a propulsive musical score. Wearing body paint that turns their skin to bloodless alabaster, the dancers' deadpan faces reveal nothing. Yet the sheer impersonality of what follows, an animated chess game on a vast square chalkboard, is curiously dramatic and gripping.

Using Fazil Say's two-piano recording, Shen sends his dancers scuttling along fault lines like beetles. Individuals fidget and flip acrobatically, apparently at random. At Stravinsky's first thundering climax, the 11 dancers stand stock still, eyes closed, twitching almost imperceptibly as the music blasts on. Rite's mounting violence is felt as a collective restraining force. By the end its pent-up power is phenomenal.

Folding, the companion piece, is slow-paced and exotic. Tibetan chants segue into the chime-laden music of John Tavener as unisex figures skirted in swirls of scarlet cloth, their heads fashioned into beehives like ancient Egyptians, glide about on unknown errands. Some move Butoh-style, slow as molluscs. Others flow on invisible currents, fabric trailing them like fins. The backdrop (by Shen Wei himself) is a copy of an 18th-century Chinese painting featuring three silver fish. Below it, fantasy two-headed human creatures, joined at the hip beneath billowing fabric, morph into weirdly folded shapes. Our 21st -century understanding of air and water, time and memory, seems inadequate. In sci-fi novels "folding space" can be a means of space and time travel. It says something for Shen Wei's powers of imagination that several hundred spectators stood rapt as he folded half an hour into an eternity.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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