Poetry from the Heart, Dance with Eternal Meaning: Shen Wei’s Reconstruction of Su Dongpo’s Spiritual World

Jul 26, 2023 TANC

The curtain rises, and on stage is the right half of Su Dongpo’s “Xiaoxiang Bamboo and Stone Picture”: a squatting stone made with the flying white technique is pressed on the left side of the picture, and the thin bamboo on both sides of the stone is like calligraphy strokes. “Xiaoxiang Bamboo and Stone Picture” was created during Su Dongpo’s exile in Huangzhou, and the taste of his life had already been revealed before the performance began on July 22nd to 23rd. Shen Wei, a choreographer and visual artist, premiered his latest work, the modern dance poetry drama “Poetry Remembers Dongpo,” at the Shanghai Cultural Square.

640Northern Song Dynasty, Su Shi, Xiaoxiang Bamboo and Stone Picture (partial)
Collection of the National Art Museum of China

Using poetry to create paintings is a tradition of Chinese literati painting, while using poetry to create dance is a new attempt by Shen Wei in “Poetry Remembers Dongpo.” Su Dongpo’s poetry is free and unrestrained, his calligraphy is round and vigorous, and his paintings prefer dead trees, bamboo, and stones. The objects in his paintings are “generally freehand, not seeking resemblance.” Just as Su Dongpo said in his poetry, “Poetry comes from the heart, and when it comes out, it brings sorrow to the heart and lungs” (“Reading Meng Jiao’s Poetry”), Shen Wei pays tribute to Su Dongpo from a thousand years ago, admires his poetic spirit, and externalizes it into the body language of dance and even the overall language of the theater. He is not confined to the performance reproduction of Su Dongpo’s life, but rather vividly portrays it through the formation of freehand pictures and images on the stage, using the organic modeling and movement lines of abstract bodies to convey poetry, calligraphy, painting, and music. This is a cross-media artistic experience that comes from Shen Wei’s expertise in dance, drama, painting, calligraphy, and even film, as well as his closest dialogue channel found after his research on Su Dongpo and Song Dynasty aesthetics.

Performance still of “Poetry Remembers Dongpo,” 2023

Through Literature, Dance, Visual Art…

The Poetic World of Su Dongpo from a Thousand Years Ago

The entire work is divided into six acts, with titles taken from Su Dongpo’s poems: “Like the autumn swan, with a message in tow / Like the spring dream, leaving no trace behind” (“Written on the Twentieth Day of the First Lunar Month with Pan and Guo, Searching for Spring in the Suburbs of the Capital, and Forgetting that They Had Gone to the Queen’s City on the Same Day Last Year, Composed with the Same Rhyme as the Previous Poem”), “The timeless and romantic figures” (“Remembering the Maiden While Appreciating the Scenery of the Red Cliffs”), “Returning home in a dream on a quiet night” (“Jiangchengzi: A Dream Recalled on the Night of the Twentieth Day of the First Lunar Month in the Year YiMao”), “May we all live long, and share the beauty of the moon, even if we are thousands of miles apart” (“A Song of Unending Sorrow: When Will the Moon Be Clear and Bright?”), “Do not dwell on the past, but embrace the new fire and try the new tea” (“Looking at the South of the River: Composed on the Terrace of Detachment”), and “Living a simple life, unaffected by the smoke and rain” (“The Settled Wind and Waves: Do Not Listen to the Sound of Rustling Leaves in the Forest”). These six poems were written during Su Dongpo’s most complex and tumultuous period, around the time of the “Wutai Poetry Case,” when his emotions and mindset were at their most complicated.

Shen Wei chose these six lines of poetry to express Su Dongpo’s spiritual world. For example, the first act, “Like the autumn swan, with a message in tow / Like the spring dream, leaving no trace behind,” is Shen Wei’s overall grasp of Su Dongpo’s attitude towards life. These two lines of poetry were written two years after the Wutai Poetry Case, when Su Dongpo was exiled to Huangzhou. While searching for spring in the suburbs, he felt the changes in time and life, and resigned himself to a state of indifference. On stage, “Like the autumn swan, with a message in tow / Like the spring dream, leaving no trace behind” appears on the right-hand side of the fan, while the left-hand side is titled “Who says life has no more youthfulness / The flowing water in front of the door still flows to the west,” taken from the poem “Washing in the Stream.” A solo dancer stands between the two fans, embodying the concept of Tai Chi in his movements. Shen Wei explained in an interview with Art News/Chinese Edition, “These two lines of poetry can represent his feelings of being in a difficult situation, feeling that life is like a spring dream, but also feeling that he can continue to move forward like flowing water. He is caught between these two states, seeing through life while still holding onto hope.”


The performance “Poetry Remembers Su Dongpo” uses poetry to initiate a dialogue between all elements in the theater. In addition to calligraphy as a visual form, it also uses recitation in the form of Chinese opera to appeal to the audience’s hearing. The focus of the audience’s vision is on the dancers’ body movements, which construct the changing time and space. The different movement languages adopted in each scene are drawn from various forms such as Tai Chi, martial arts, Chinese opera, ballet, etc., and are integrated into the body language created by Shen Wei, corresponding to the theme of each scene and creating different textures.

In the scene “Returning Home in a Dream on a Moonlit Night,” the line “I know every year my heart will break, on this moonlit night, on the Short Pine Hill” is recited in the form of Chinese opera. Su Dongpo’s deceased wife, Wang Fu, stands on the side of the stage with long hair as a brush, dipping it in ink and writing on a long scroll that spans the width of the stage. The people standing on the steps behind her follow her slowly, expressing the emotions written in the line “We look at each other, speechless, with only tears streaming down our faces.”


In addition to poetry, calligraphy, and painting, seal carving is also a visual element chosen by Shen Wei. In the scene “Eternal Romantic Figures,” Shen Wei chose fourteen Su Dongpo seals, representing his self-reflection at different stages of life. “Fourteen seals, fourteen different names, all Su Dongpo. The different names make up his multi-faceted and complex personality,” Shen Wei said in an interview. “At the same time, Su Dongpo is also a person who looks at things comprehensively. Many of his poems reflect this, such as ‘I am sad for the snow on the east fence, life is seen through a clear lens,’ ‘Near or far, high or low, all different,’ and ‘I do not know the true face of Mount Lu, only because I am in this mountain.’ This is his philosophical view and attitude.”

The Chinese philosophy of yin and yang contained in seal carving, as well as the abstract forms, spatial composition, and the force of the carving knife contained in the seal script and seal surface structure, are connected and in dialogue with the dancers’ body lines, movement rhythms, and overall coordination.

The play “Poetry Remembers Su Dongpo” presents a contemporary interpretation of Su Dongpo’s spirit through a fusion of Eastern and Western artistic elements. Shen Wei, the creator of the play, also incorporates his personal artistic language into the work. Shen Wei’s “Natural Body Development Method” is used to explore the movement and changes of energy in the body through natural body movements. The individual movements of the body flow into the group, like the “qi” that runs through the body. Some dance movements, such as the lifting of two people, can be traced back to Shen Wei’s representative works “Sheng Xi” and “Tian Ti”. At the beginning of the sixth act, the stage projection shows a picture of Shen Wei painting with a guqin melody, pointing to Shen Wei’s “Movement” series of paintings, which visually reproduces the sound and rhythm of the guqin melody through action painting.


Shen Wei’s paintings are presented in a more direct way in “Poetry Remembers Su Dongpo”, where the paintings directly form part of the scene or backdrop, creating a dialogue with other elements in the theater. The background of the “Timeless Romantic Figure” scene is Shen Wei’s painting “Untitled No. 8”, which comes from his “Untitled” series of large-scale abstract paintings created between 2013 and 2015. This series of paintings combines “mental landscape” with movement, environment, and mood, rather than being purely landscape or scenery. At the beginning of the third act, the slowly brightening painting is “Untitled No. 11” from the same series. By directly referencing his personal paintings, Shen Wei brings the Eastern cultural genes that run through his various creative media into the current artistic expression.


Dialogue with the Past, Recreate the Present

In 1968, Shen Wei was born into a family of Hunanese opera artists. He began learning traditional Chinese painting at the age of 6 and received professional training in opera at the age of 9 due to his family’s influence. At 16, he started studying oil painting and joined the Guangdong Modern Dance Company in the early 1990s. In 1995, after receiving the Nick Lasee Award, Shen Wei moved to New York City, where he has lived ever since. His overseas studies and life experiences broadened his horizons, and he was nourished by various art forms such as visual arts, dance, music, and film. Gradually, he established an awareness of cross-cultural and cross-aesthetic language that bridged Eastern and Western aesthetics.

Shen Wei’s creations span different art forms and reflect his personal artistic system. His works focus on and observe individuals, as well as the connections between individuals and all things, leading to the integration of introspection and external appearance. In 2008, Shen Wei was invited to create “Scroll Painting” for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. In eight minutes, a scroll unfolded, and dancers used their bodies to create lines that were both rich in ancient meaning and contemporary abstract meaning. At a time when China was in close communication with the West, this work, which combined dance, calligraphy, and painting, stood at the forefront of China’s dialogue with the world.

The philosophical concept of the evolution of all things and the flow of energy in Eastern culture has been rooted in Shen Wei’s artistic expression from beginning to end. After “Scroll Painting,” Shen Wei maintained a frequency of returning to China to perform or create every two to three years. In 2012, he brought his early work “The Rite of Spring” to the National Centre for the Performing Arts. In 2014, Shen Wei performed “Shadows” and “Rite of Spring” in Shanghai. Two years later, Shanghai audiences saw his “The Rite of Spring” and “Map.” In the same year, the Asia Society Hong Kong Center presented his first solo exhibition in Asia, “Shen Wei: Dance Strokes.” In 2018, Shen Wei presented “Unknown Land” at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, which comprehensively reviewed his visual art works and creative process.
In 2021, Shen Wei brought his new work “Fuse” to Shanghai, presenting his reflections on life in the form of three acts in the space of the West Bund Dome Art Center, which has an Eastern philosophical concept of “heaven and earth in harmony.” “Fuse” is a deepening development of “Separate and Together,” which was performed in the New York Armory in 2011. The performance begins with Chinese traditional hexagrams and his visual art exhibition, followed by a theme of “connection” on the giant screen, where dancers lean on each other and move around various corners of Shanghai. In the final live performance, 32 dancers dance in their respective “heaven and earth,” and the audience is brought to the performance site to watch the dancers up close. “Fuse” is the axis that runs through Shen Wei’s works, whether it is adjusting or eliminating the viewing distance, or integrating and connecting different art forms.

In November 2021, Shen Wei received an invitation from the China Oriental Performing Arts Group to create a dance work based on Su Dongpo’s poetry. In the following four months, Shen Wei conducted in-depth research on Su Dongpo’s poetry and Song Dynasty culture. After formally accepting the commission, he revised the work 19 times over a period of 20 months to achieve the most accurate expression. “I have read all of Su Dongpo’s more than 3,000 works, including poetry, prose, and letters. I have also seen all the Song Dynasty paintings, poetry, and calligraphy that I could find. I particularly like the ‘Song Painting Series’ in the ‘Chinese Painting Series of All Dynasties,’ which has more than 30 volumes. I also went to the Palace Museum to see the ‘Eternal Beauty: Su Shi Themed Painting and Calligraphy Exhibition in the Palace Museum,'” Shen Wei said in an interview. “The deeper you go, the more accurate it becomes. You can see more clearly the overall cultural background in which Su Dongpo lived, and the Chinese traditional culture and aesthetics that it brought out, and think about the relationship between the civilization of that time and the contemporary world civilization.”
The play “Poetry Remembers Su Dongpo” features two depictions of geographical space and the passage of time. Before the start of Act II, a map shows Su Dongpo’s official career path, starting from his hometown in Meishan, Sichuan, and passing through Bianjing, Hangzhou, Xuzhou, Huzhou, and finally ending in Changzhou on his way back to Beijing, where he passed away. At the transition between Acts IV and V, various modes of transportation, from carriages and sedan chairs to bicycles and skateboards, are displayed on stage, spanning from ancient times to the present day. A dancer watches the procession, while the stage projection above shows a timeline from Su Dongpo’s birth year in 1037 to the present day in 2023.

For director Shen Wei, the presentation of Su Dongpo’s “journey map” looks back on and summarizes his tumultuous life from a historical perspective. Meanwhile, the thousand-year evolution of vehicles that carried Su Dongpo aims to establish a connection between history and the present day. Even as times change, Su Dongpo’s spiritual world can still resonate with people from different eras. “Poetry Remembers Su Dongpo” is a contemporary and innovative work, according to Shen Wei. “It’s not an antique; it’s alive. It has contemporary aesthetic value, which has evolved from the Song Dynasty and lasted for about a thousand years until now,” he said.

To Shen Wei, the creative process of “Poetry Remembers Su Dongpo” is a practice of art and life, leading to a state of “going back without wind or rain, without sunshine or clear skies.” The play’s poster features the Song Dynasty painting “Red Cliff” below and Shen Wei’s “Untitled” series of paintings above. In the “Red Cliff” painting, the gaze of the Song people on the boat in the waves, looking up at the Red Cliff, is juxtaposed with Shen Wei’s work, creating a dialogue between Shen Wei and Su Dongpo and presenting his state of mind and artistic conception in dialogue with the ancient and contemporary.


Photography by Wang Xufeng

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