Dance students participate in Shen Wei Winter Intensive

For many students, winter break means extra sleep, seeing old friends, and home-cooked meals. For Shelley White, it meant learning to be a statue.

During a two-week winter intensive with Shen Wei Dance Arts, White and 20 other Mason Gross dance students learned a style of movement that challenged their minds as much as their bodies.

“All a statue can do is be present,” says White, a fourth-year dancer. “Trying to depict that, all you can think about is presence and concentrated, precise movement. It’s a lot of mental work.”

The Shen Wei technique, with roots in classical Chinese opera and visual art, focuses on conscious choice in movement, requiring intense concentration.

“The focus is on presence over choreography,” says Shawn Brush, a third-year dance student. “It’s a challenge to always be thinking.”

Leading the dancers on this cerebral journey was Kate Jewett, rehearsal director for Shen Wei Dance Arts who joined the company in 2005. The rigorous schedule included morning technique classes followed by solid five-hour blocks of afternoon rehearsals for “Behind Resonance,” a piece created by Wei that students will perform at the DancePlus Spring concert in April. The work was inspired by the sculptures of Antony Gormley and is a meditation on mindfulness through slow, deliberate motions.

Students draped in dark-gray velvet costumes (designed by dance alumna Meagan Woods) rolled across the Loree Dance Studio floor in slow motion as Jewett instructed in a calm but firm voice—“Feel the detail. It’s not set in stone. It’s the easiest thing you ever did.”

Although these directives may sound like they could be part of a relaxing evening yoga class, this was no end-of-day wind-down.

“The speed and the specific way that they’re being asked to use their bodies makes this an incredibly challenging technique,” says Julia Ritter, chair and artistic director of the Dance Department, as well as a Mason Gross alum. “Slow is much harder than fast.”

Wei, who founded his New York City-based company in 2000 and became internationally known after choreographing the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, does not usually share his work with students, says Ritter.

Jewett demands the highest-quality output from her students and stresses the serious professionalism of the New York City dance world, where, she says, “there is little room for laziness or excuses.”

“This is a day in the life of a professional dancer,” adds Kim Gibilisco, a choreographer and lecturer in the Dance Department and a Mason Gross alum. “Kate does not lower the bar for students.”

And the dancers certainly didn’t shy away from the challenge, as Gibilsco observed.

“I think the students really end up surprising each other and themselves with how far they take it in a week,” she says.

Students got to see the payoff of such professionalism when Shen Wei Dance Arts performed at the State Theatre in New Brunswick in early February—with Jewett getting an extra burst of hoots and hollers during the rounds of applause.

For Brush, working with Jewett was a highlight of his Mason Gross dance education.

“I learned more than I ever thought I would,” he says. “This experience has been the time of my life.”

Posted January 2014