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BWW Interview: Wei Wang of THE MARSH FESTIVAL OF NEW MUSICAL VOICES 2021 at The Marsh Makes the Leap to Film

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The dancer and choreographer's ambitious musical film "Aphrodisia" premieres as part of the festival, which runs September 30th to October 10th

BWW Interview: Wei Wang of THE MARSH FESTIVAL OF NEW MUSICAL VOICES 2021 at The Marsh Makes the Leap to Film
Director, Choreographer & Dancer Wei Wang
(photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)

Long known as an incubator for new performance, The Marsh is really pushing the boundaries with its latest endeavor, The Marsh Festival of New Musical Voices 2021. The festival is comprised of three in-person full-length musicals and one dance/musical film available for streaming, each of which breaks new artistic ground in some way. The performers come from a vast range of music backgrounds - including a Grammy Award-winning Armenian composer, a Principal Dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, a Music Faculty Member at UC Berkeley, and the Principal Keyboard of the San Francisco Symphony. The four wildly different works tackle the topics of love and loss, the generational divide, racism, and more. The Festival runs September 30 to October 10, 2021 with live performances at The Marsh Berkeley. To learn more about the festival and to purchase tickets, visit themarsh.org.

Wei Wang, afore-mentioned Principal Dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, is the director and choreographer of the festival's musical film Aphrodisia, in which he also stars along with Stephanie Weisman, Founder and Executive/Artistic Director of The Marsh. Based on a tone poem written and composed by Weisman, the work combines elements of dance, film, poetry and music. Aphrodisia follows Weisman's time spent with a master painter, living in a house on stilts above a saltwater marsh looking over Delaware Bay. While he paints still lifes, she spends her days on the marsh, writing, exploring, questioning, and ruminating about motherhood, career, and being an artist. Everything is intensified by the couple's isolation and proximity to nature.

I recently caught up with Wang while he was in the middle of another long day of class and rehearsals for San Francisco Ballet's upcoming season. As a dancer, Wang is known for his virtuoso technique that hides all the hard work behind it. His dancing always seems to be about serving the music and choreography, rather than just showing off. At the same time, he is able to provide major drama when the ballet calls for it. His signature role thus far is perhaps the Creature in Frankenstein, a part to which he brought surprising humanity and emotional transparency. It is unsurprising that Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, probably the two most in-demand choreographers in the world, have sought him out to dance in their ballets.

Wang and I talked about how he originally connected with Weisman, his approach in making the film, and his surprising life trajectory from growing up in Anshan, China to becoming a leading dancer with one of the world's top ballet companies. His story of how he came to San Francisco Ballet through the encouragement of his relatives in Sacramento is surprising, humorous and touching, not to mention a reminder that sometimes you just need to take a big chance. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aphrodisia sounds like quite an intriguing hybrid of film, dance, music and poetry. How would you describe it?

Aphrodisia is Stephanie's personal story. It's a journal of discovering love, life, abandonment, making decisions, and then letting go.

I am fascinated by the idea of you collaborating with Stephanie since, to me anyway, your disciplines and life histories seem so different from each other. How did the two of you originally connect?

I knew her through my partner Brian, the General Manager of The Marsh. During the pandemic, she asked me if I wanted to teach a class on MarshStream because they were doing everything online and then actually like just 60 seconds later, she was like [thinking to herself] "I know that he choreographs...." and she said, "I actually have a piece called Aphrodisia. Can we collaborate on that?"

We were [originally] aiming for a livestream kind of a show, but I was like "It's difficult for me as a dancer; space is a very important element." Like my living room is not big enough for a Zoom show, so I suggested to Stephanie, "Why don't we turn it into a film?" And when I said that, I had no idea what I was doing to myself, cause I knew nothing about film. I did know how to choreograph, but I had no idea how to do a film. [laughs]

And I would imagine that choreographing for film is very different than choreographing for the stage.

You are a hundred percent correct. It's all about the camera.

So how did you approach choreographing for film?

When I heard the music from Aphrodisia, I have to be honest, I thought the music is great, it tells its own story, it stands by itself, but it's not a hundred percent danceable. So I had a hard time coming around to what kind of style, what kind of movement I wanted to make to that music. But after a couple of days, I sort of figured out. I wanted to go slightly more dramatic with the movement and put some subtle drama into it to fit the story.

In my mind, I'm not necessarily the man in the story, but I am in her world. I am Stephanie, with the female character's emotion, her inside world, what she is thinking and reacting to in the storyline. And the Stephanie in the film, her character, is also Stephanie herself in her current state, how she reacts to what happened, to her memories.

Does Stephanie dance at all in the film? Do you speak any lines?

Because this film is based off a recording of a live performance from a long time ago, there's already narration, there's singing, there's poetry, there's music. It stands as itself, so I was like "Why not just not talk at all?" And then I did put in some movement from Stephanie, so I kind of made her dance. But it turns out she enjoyed it. [laughs]

You hopefully still have many years ahead of you as a dancer, but do you have any thoughts of eventually becoming a full-time choreographer or filmmaker?

Yeah, if everything goes to plan, but my main focus right now is still with San Francisco Ballet. I want to put myself more towards dancing than choreographing, or "behind the curtain" as people say. As long as I have the energy or motivation, I will still do small projects here or there to keep my mind going with creating, coming up with movement or dance pieces. But hopefully by the time my dancing career's reaching its endpoint, then I will start a choreographing career.

Creating is always something that's on my mind, even while working with choreographers. Like we have a new Christopher Wheeldon piece coming up in the season, and working with him in the studio, it not only makes me want to dance, but also makes me think like what I could do, in terms of creating [a new piece]. So that's always something that's in the back of my mind.

You started dancing in Anshan, China when you were just 7 or 8 years old, and then moved to Beijing at age 10 to study ballet seriously. Is it very common for kids in China to take ballet?

Um, the majority of the society, I want to say no. But I think people in China right now are educating their kids more, like bringing them to see a ballet performance. By the time I auditioned for Beijing Dance Academy, out of 3,000 to 5,000 kids from all around China, they took 15 boys and 15 girls in ballet, and then 15 girls and 15 guys in Chinese traditional dance. So it was a choice to make.

But if you want a funny story out of that, I actually got [accepted] in both classes, and it was down to my decision, or my parents' decision. So my parents called my first dance teacher in my hometown, Anshan where I was born, and as he said to me, "The reality is if you want to make RMB [Chinese currency] in the future, you go with Chinese traditional dance. If you want to make dollars, then go with ballet." And that's how I chose my major! [laughs] I don't know what I was thinking, but I was like "Sure, dollars sound nice."

How did you originally come to the attention of SFB?

I had an aunt that used to live in Sacramento, and she wanted me to come to the States to experience this side of the world. And then she was like "You just need a good reason to do your visa." Cause getting a visa back then wasn't that easy. I mean, it's still not easy, but I really needed a reason for it. Her daughter found out San Francisco Ballet School was auditioning for summer session. So my cousin was like "Just say you'll audition for the school, whether or not you're actually gonna do it." [laughs] This is probably like not legal information, but I'm gonna say it anyway because I think it's really funny.

So I just sort of used that excuse, but it turns out I actually did [audition]. The day before I left to fly back to China, my aunt was like "Are you sure you're gonna take a pass? I think it's a really good opportunity for you. It's one more option when you graduate from Beijing Dance Academy." So I auditioned, and I got in and I got a scholarship. And I was like "Yeah, this is where I'm gonna go."

What a great story! Just think how differently your life could have turned out if not for that spur-of-the-moment decision to audition.

Yeah, exactly!

I'm really excited about SFB's upcoming season because we finally get to see you dance onstage live again after almost two years. Which roles are you particularly excited about dancing this season?

We will be repeating Don Quixote and Swan Lake. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing in Swan Lake yet, but I think I will be doing Basilio again [in Don Quixote], and then there's two world premieres that I'm in. One is Dwight Rhoden's piece about helping people see hope coming out of the pandemic. Then another piece is the new Christopher Wheeldon, which is also a fun piece to watch.

I mean there's a lot. There's also The Seasons by Alexei Ratmansky that I'm in. I'm really looking forward to that. The dance is challenging and it's fun. It premiered it at American Ballet Theatre and got a good reception, and hopefully the audience here will like that one as well. I think they will.

You were terrific in Ratmansky's Symphony #9 a couple of seasons ago. I feel like you just totally get what his movement is all about.

Thank you. Yeah, I love dancing his pieces. And he just created a two-couple piece for the gala coming in January. I'm part of the understudy cast, but I got to actually work with him closely on how he choreographs and works with dancers in the studio. It was a great opportunity for me to learn from him, but also he said ballet - especially San Francisco Ballet as a classically-based ballet company - so the steps are old, but we need to put on a new style or sort of a new way to do them, which I totally agree with. The steps have been around for so long and those steps are still amazing, still challenging to do, but we need to give them a newer look, to push ballet forward, to carry that tradition on. I mean, I just love how he does that. It inspires me.

Out of the many different roles you've danced, which one felt most natural to you, felt most like "Yeah, this one really expresses who I am?"

I have to say it's the Creature in Frankenstein.

I remember seeing you in that role, and you were terrific. If I recall correctly, it was one of the first really big parts you got to dance.

Yeah, it's one of the first big roles in a full-length that I carried.

How was that role the most natural for you?

I mean, well of course the character itself is not something that is not super-related to me, but the progression from the Creature being born and then discovering himself and then finding himself in this new position in the society or in this world - that related to how I became a ballet dancer and moved to the States and then found myself in a new environment, and like learning the language, learning the culture, learning how things function here. On that level, I really found a similarity between the Creature and myself, like I could kind of find myself going through that experience again. Which is scary [laughs], but I did really enjoy doing that onstage.

Ballet requires so much discipline that it's only something you do as a career if you really love it. So just as a working dancer, what's the best thing about your job? What do you enjoy the most?

Of course, dancing onstage is something I always look forward to and am excited about. But I think on a daily basis, it sounds bland and boring, but like seeing my colleagues from 10:00 to 6:30 every day and we're sort of struggling with our own problems that we're going through, like working on whatever we need to work on. Seeing everyone in the studio, the working process of "let's push together," I think something about that just inspires me and makes me want to keep going. And especially seeing all the younger dancers today. They just want to make a living, and to show themselves, what they can do. It's truly inspiring to me and reminds me how I first started and it makes me want to keep going.

During the pandemic, when everyone was quarantined and doing class in our living rooms, that just... I still did it, but I found it really difficult. Because I didn't feel as inspired, I didn't feel I could push as much. Like even if there's just one colleague next to me doing barre together, or doing an exercise together, there's an energy going, you know? You're not alone, and there's always someone you can get inspired by. And sometimes you do get frustrated, but when you're away from it, when you're on layoff, you realize how much you treasure the time that you actually get to work with your co-workers.


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