Choreographer Shen Wei has mastered the art of the ensemble. He deploys his dancers in his troupe, Shen Wei Dance Arts, with an eye toward mathematical precision — so precise that his dancers appear inhuman, creatures advanced to a realm beyond emotion.
Obviously Wei, who choreographed the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, thinks spatially. That was made clear in two works that his company showed at MASS MoCA on Sunday afternoon. His version of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and his newest, “Collective Measures” demonstrated his clinical approach that was so hypnotic and repetitive that it verged on monotony.
Certainly, “Collective Measures,” a work that zeroed in on the coldness of our overpopulated world, bordered dull. But his “Rite of Spring,” with its commanding and demanding score, insisted on attention. Those who gave it were well compensated.
The dancers appeared facing each other in the wings. In silence, they scurried, one-by-one, into position throughout the stage. Performing a clipped walk with a short stride, they looked restrained. But once the Stravinsky score reverberated, in an insistent four-hand piano version by Fazil Say, the dancers were shredded their inhibitions. They were transformed into a group of bouncing, twitching and driven warriors whose trajectory was clear to them, but a continual surprise to the audience.
Set on 15 dancers, the piece was an exhausting one for the dancers who endlessly maneuvered. Dancers shot straight in the air, again and again, landing in a heap on the floor. Their hands fanned above their heads and twirled as if they were hovering helicopters. And when they weren’t jumping, they were grinding their heels in to the floor, spinning on their backs with their legs wheeling or simply running.
The explosions of movement ended abruptly as the music.
Unfortunately, Wei’s “Collective Measures” did not provide the same interest. His concept, our isolation in an overly connected world, was timely, even though it wasn’t original. For the most part, he portrayed the issue conspicuously. It was especially telling when dancers were confined to a small box upstage. They had to continually adjust for their shirking space as if they playing a game of Twister. Dancers had to eventually be stacked as the floor became too crowded.
Yet much of what Wei conceived felt too drawn out — like the dancers facing each other in silence with a curtain between them. The only movement was a video of a dancer projected above their heads. They eventually began to mirror her movement, a twisted stretch of bodily joints, but that, too, felt overdone.
There was also a curious, but interesting solo with a dancer stepping and rolling around on a canvas dotted with wet paint. She was the brush on the painting that was later held for view and carried away. While intriguing, it didn’t enhance or fit the overall concept.
In the end, the dancers lined up, front-to-back. Moving as one, like a giant caterpillar, the lights dimmed.
At that point, it was a relief.