Shen's production of Second Visit to the Empress, which made its New York premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival in July, is based on the eighteenth-century original, itself the concluding chapter in a triptych. Second Visit recounts the coup d'état staged by the empress's father in the wake of the emperor's death, and the father's subsequent defeat at the hands of the loyal general and duke whom the empress entrusts with her infant, the rightful heir.
Even if your knowledge of purist Chinese opera is limited to Kaige Chen's award-winning 1993 film Farewell My Concubine, you could probably guess that it doesn't traditionally include modern dance, though it does combine music, pantomime, acrobatics, and martial arts. In Shen's version, dancers simultaneously translate the vocal and tonal inflections through staccato isolations of the hips and shoulders, nimble weight shifts, and slicing directional changes. They often appear to be jointed marionettes, set in motion by external forces. But at the same time Shen's dancers in this piece or in one of his abstract dance masterworks such as The Rite of Spring (2003) are nothing if not self contained.
Ultimately, whether this ninety-minute updated classic successfully merges eras and categories is up to the audience. Either way, Shen Wei will continue to take provocative and intensely watchable new risks.