SHEN WEI'S Australian premiere at the Sydney Opera House on Thursday was one more conquest for the choreographer, dancer, painter, filmmaker and designer. In 1991, he changed China's cultural scene by co-founding the mainland's first modern dance company in Guangzhou. Sincen 2000, critics in the US and Europe have acclaimed his Shen Wei Dance Art troupe. His Sydney triumph rounds off his world-wide exposure. The 36-year-old's sold-out double bill - Rite of Spring (2002-2003) and Folding (2000) - has been one of the draw cards of the city's annual arts festival. The production, which finished a successful run in London last month, ends tomorrow in Sydney and will go to Singapore's Esplanade next month. Rite of Spring is performed on a stage-sized abstract floor painting, with dancers swirling across the randomly placed calligraphic brushstrokes to the music of Stravinsky. In Folding, which Shen created for the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, mysterious figures with elongated heads and scarlet gowns float to the sounds of Tibetan Buddhist chants. The backdrop is a modern rendition of an 18th-century Chinese watercolour painting by Ba Dan San Ren. Shen says he appreciates the open-mindedness of Sydney, a city known for its multiculturalism, large overseas Chinese community and strong Asian influences in everything from fashion to food. 'People come to Sydney from all over the world and, if the reception is good, that's great for us because we're trying to find a way to create new performance art and dance for the 21st century,' he says. 'When I go to different countries the response is really different. Behind my work is a different cultural development which means that, in some cities, the audience understands the work in a particular way, or likes one show better than the other.' Shen's contribution to the arts is a lifelong passion spanning three decades. The child of artistic parents - his father acted and directed opera, his mother was a theatre producer - Shen began performing in the Hunan State Xian Opera at the age of six. He left home three years later to study Chinese opera at the Hunan Arts School. Later, he was awarded first prize at the inaugural national Modern Dance competition in China. In the early 1990s, he acted as a founding member of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. And in 1995, he got a scholarship to study in New York, where he is based today. It was this move from China to the US - plus a heart problem that forced him to convalesce in hospital - that made Shen re-examine what really constitutes modern dance. 'Rare is the artist who fits into no recognisable category or fashionable aesthetic,' wrote The New York Times in July. By his own admission, Shen is not attempting to tell specific stories in his works. His uniqueness lies in his ability to be a true multimedia artist, and to avoid being categorised just as a modern dancer. 'People always try to fit my work to their memories or their past or another work,' he says. 'Or they use terms like 'east meets west'. But when I go to Asia, people say, 'Your work isn't really Asian at all'. Or, 'You're not Chinese'. In New York, they say I'm not really western. I want to create a new work, a new dance, a new movement vocabulary.' He quotes his favourite review, from an Amsterdam newspaper, which says his work 'opens a new chapter of dance'. It's this newness that he constantly strives for. It's Shen's compulsion to create a new type of body language and a new way for dancers to move. 'I'm interested in how we move and how we use our bodies,' he says. 'We have already developed a new technique.' It's been reported that Shen left China because the government disapproved of his dances, but he says he decided to leave primarily for personal reasons and that he was craving to learn. 'I wasn't in a good place and I felt I didn't have enough information,' he says. 'New York gave me a broader experience and helped me understand. I didn't just want to copy other forms of modern dance.' Shen has since attended performances by his former Guangzhou company, but keeps his distance. 'It's their work and it's nothing to do with me and how I see dance,' he says. Instead, Shen has spent the past four years developing his own young company, training dancers from around the world. He has 12 performers in his stable and hopes to increase that to 16 soon. Shen performs at art festivals all over the world. Last year, he brought his troupe to the Venice Biennale, the Israeli Festival, the American Dance Festival, Jacob's Pillow Festival and New York's Lincoln Centre Festival. But he doesn't begrudge his life on the road. Between rehearsals, development and fundraising, his dance company is all-consuming. During his rare time off ('once a year'), he says, he finds little time to rest and sometimes his energy suffers as a result. However, it seems he wouldn't have it any other way. 'I'm really happy to do everything myself,' he says. After Singapore, Shen will start work on a Chinese opera. 'I'm trying to do it in a really contemporary way - not with the traditional costumes, sceneries or sets,' he says. 'Everything has to be a new construct. It's about presenting a Chinese opera through contemporary dance movement.' Shen believes the time is right, because interest in traditional Chinese opera is waning. 'Usually people think Chinese opera's music is difficult. Neither young nor older people go to see it any more and the audience is disconnected. I want audiences to understand the music done in a contemporary way and I want to take it to the next level and transform it to a new art form.' Part of his goal is to take the performance to China. There's little likelihood that Shen will slow down. He hopes to continue to perform, as well, saying that it helps him understand his dancers better if he is sharing the stage with them each night. 'I never thought I'd have my own company and be doing so well,' he says. 'After 30 years, I never get nervous on stage any more.' Shen Wei's Rite of Spring and Folding, Feb 15-16, 8pm, Esplanade: Theatres on the Bay, Singapore. For more information, go to www.shenweidancearts.org .