I often picture an old man, at peace, walking slowly or sitting in the park. He holds a teapot, a birdcage, a fan — and whistles, savoring a tune from Chinese opera. — Shen Wei

Shen Wei is one of the most acclaimed and exciting choreographers on the scene today. No longer an emerging artist, he has most certainly arrived — collecting numerous commissions and awards, with prestigious engagements around the globe, including performances at the American Dance Festival and the Venice Biennale. A visual as well as performing artist, Shen considers his pieces Gesamtkunstwerke, or total works of art. He not only directs, choreographs, and dances with his company (Shen Wei Dance Arts), he also designs the sets, costumes, and makeup.

Shen, like any creative artist worth following, is impelled to challenge and redefine boundaries, pushing to arrive at previously uncharted artistic territory. But Second Visit to the Empress — a traditional Beijing opera punctuated with modern dance to be presented by UMS at the Power Center Friday through Sunday, September 28-30 — is a dramatic departure even for him.

Born in China and schooled in Xian-style Chinese opera from an early age, Shen went on to become a founding member of the groundbreaking Guangdong Modern Dance Company. But opera never left him. In his director's note Shen writes, "Since 1989, when I completed my time as a Chinese opera performer, I have dreamt of revisiting the form as a director and designer."

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.

[Review published September 2007]