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Shen Wei pulls the Dutch National Ballet out of comfort zone at @HollandFestival

Holland Festival Holland Festival
The Dutch National Ballet presents two world premieres at Holland Festival: Overture by choreographer David Dawson and Sacre du Printemps by New York-based choreographer/artist Shen Wei. Two ballets of monumental scale.

Technological madness 

In the prologue of Overture sounds a sea of swelling strings. A sea of dancers appear on stage, mimicking the 'technological madness' of our times with a succession of ballet steps. There is no visible relationship between the dancers: we lack the 'opportunity to communicate on a personal level' in this day and age, according to the choreographer. Dawson, who began his career as a choreographer with the Dutch National Ballet, finds simplicity and tranquillity of old in T.S. Eliot's poem The Four Quartets. This is reflected in pastoral group dance, a grand pas de deux full of feeling by Igone de Jongh and Casey Herd and a solo in solitude superbe performed by talent Edo Wijnen.


Overture, a prelude to the Sacre, pursues a synergy between Szymon Brzóska's music, Eno Henze's set and Dawson's choreography. That combination of disciplines is powerful but the dance is better expressed once an important part of the set - the moving artwork of hanging beams - disappears. The cold stage light from above contrasts strikingly with Brzóska's warm, cinematic music. This puts the dance caught between the self-imposed conditions of synergy. The dancers themselves, on the other hand, feel at home in Dawson's ballet style and coquettishly high-pitched.

Breathing in Sacre du Printemps

The interval is followed by work by a man who pulls dancers out of this comfort zone: Shen Wei's version of the Sacre. In a large, ritualistic circle, thirty dancers begin to move slowly. Around them three large painted panels. The first sounds of the yearning bassoon solo from Stravinsky's masterpiece propel the dancers up one by one. They then move with quick steps, with the heel as the first point of contact. All sorts of dances follow: small solos, groups dancing separately from each other and travelling dances in which choreographer Wei does not let himself be thrown off balance by the legendary key moments in the music. He ignores them or follows them unexpectedly. The flow and dynamics of the music appeal to Wei more than stories about ancient sacrifices. For him, what counts is the quality of movement. Where that begins becomes visible when dancers side by side to bombastic music merely look into the audience, focusing on their breathing.


The synergy is in Sacre du Printemps at Shen Wei himself: he designed set, lighting and costumes. No sweaty bodies, conjuring madness, mythical poses or out-of-your-seat controversy. Rather, you undergo a wholesome cultural experience. Punk choreographer Michael Clark once created a fierce Sacre in London for just one bare-chested dancer. Wei has no desire to grab the audience by the scruff of the neck, shake them up and dismay them into the street to admire life again. He prefers a harmonious reimagining.

'In my work, I try to express breath from within and movement that is all around us. From a bird in nature to music, like the Sacre.'

The successful choreographer spent a year listening to the orchestral version of Stravinsky's revolutionary 1913 work. In considerably less time, the dancers of the Dutch National Ballet had to master the entirely new movement material. Erica Horwood single-handedly succeeds in imbuing the Sacre with character. Of all the dancers, she is the only one who is on stage from start to finish and best interprets Wei's intentions.

A solo version would not be out of place for her either.

Shen Wei - afterparty Dutch National Ballet - Holland Festival
Shen Wei - afterparty Dutch National Ballet - Holland Festival
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The programme can be seen until 22 June in Het Muziektheater Amsterdam 

Ruben Brugman

writing ex-dancerView Author posts

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