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One On 1: Shen Wei Dances His Way Into History

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Some of Shen Wei's dance performances this year are seen by hundreds, but the founder of the Shen Wei Dance Arts Company is coming off a performance seen by billions. He talks about his career and more in the following One on 1 report with Budd Mishkin.

Shen Wei isn't resting on his laurels. But if he were, it would be understandable.

He is, after all, the man who choreographed this summer's elaborate Opening Ceremony at the Olympics in Beijing.

"You know, sometimes once you've done a big thing, you feel empty," he says. "It's like you have jet lag. Your brain, your body physically kind of stopped. That's how I felt after I finished the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics."

He rehearsed the Opening Ceremony's intricate movements for months, first with his own dance company in New York and then with the Chinese performers in Beijing.

Shen Wei has performed internationally for years, but with billions watching around the globe, he said nothing could have prepared him for this night.

"Every dress rehearsal had a problem; even the last one before the Opening we still had problems with technology," says Wei. "But that night was when it was perfect. It was amazing."

The same could be said for his story.

Wei was born in 1966, during China's repressive Cultural Revolution, immigrated to New York in 1995, and returned by invitation of the Chinese government 13 years later to help showcase his native country to the world.

"You know, maybe I still don't know how much that affected the people who are living right now and I'm still kind of shocked," he says.

Shen Wei's work reflects a mixture of the old and the new.

He came to New York to pursue the freedom of modern dance. But he is still a product of the discipline required by the Chinese opera studies of his youth, when he was in class from sun up to sundown.

"In a really, really bad conditions, I can still survive; I can manage to work things out," he says.

When he was nine, Wei was sent to a boarding school to learn Chinese opera.

"I only got to see my parents twice a year and my first class was at 5:30 in the morning," he recalls. "And it was during that time in China that there was no hot water that we use cold water to wash our faces."

After six and a half years, he'd learned Chinese opera – and discipline.

"Chinese opera is like having all art forms come together because you dance, you sing, you talk like an actor, you're acting, and then you have all the makeup, costumes," he explains.

His creativity extends from the dance floor to the canvas. Wei's paintings have been exhibited both here and in china.

"When I was four years old, I started to learn Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting, the watercolor painting," he says. "Then, until I was 16 years old, I studied oil painting, Western paintings."

"My paintings in the past were more realistic," Wei continues. "But now the work is more abstract and also connects to my dance performance."

His passion for painting comes from his father, whose calligraphy adorns the walls of Wei's West Side apartment.

He has combined his two loves – dance and painting. The world saw it on opening night of the Olympics.

"If you do good work, you give a good energy, give positive information and culture to the people," he says. "It affects more people. That if affects people is a really good compliment for artists."

Shen Wei likes to bring his dance company into schools, like P.S. 218 in the South Bronx.

His story is part of the lesson. He grew up amidst abject poverty and repression, at a time when one spoonful of sugar was considered a treat.

"I don't have anything to compare what childhood is supposed to be, which means I think that's the way how everybody grows up," he says.

He achieved a level of success in dance and painting in china, and yet he longed for New York. He received permission to come in 1995.

When he landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport, there was fear, because he spoke no English, had little money, and his ride was late. But he said there was also magic in the night.

"There's so much smoke in the air and the smoke heat come off the ground," he remembers. "It just looked like in movies – beautiful and so mysterious."

As Wei immersed himself in New York's dance world, he learned English through books and cassettes, and learned about the city the hard way.

"I didn't know the city had areas that were more dangerous and others that were safer," he says. "I didn't have that concept in my mind. One night I woke up to gun shots in my building."

He survived that night, as well as surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat.

"If you don't have insurance, you can't really afford to stay in hospital. So I left the same day," says Wei.

A few years later, his parents came to visit him in New York for the first time. They arrived the night of September 10th, 2001.

The next morning, as they watched the Twin Towers fall, Shen Wei's parents reacted by remembering their own painful experiences.

"My parents said, 'go buy rice and water,' because that's the most important thing when you grow up during the Cultural Revolution, during what's happening in their life," Wei says. "The first things are water and the food."

They asked him to come back to China. He said no. Later that fall, they saw him perform – at the Kennedy Center.

Shen Wei stayed, and thrived.

His company, Shen Wei Dance Arts, combines eastern and western traditions, modern and ancient influences.

In 2007, he earned a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Award.

This summer, billions watched his choreography during the opening night of the Olympics.

"When I moved to New York, I never thought today I'd be an international choreographer," he says. "Now, I find out, you know, sometimes if you do the best you can every day, sometimes you end up in a place which is much better than you expected or dreamed."

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