Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: Graceful and dynamic, Nai-Ni Chen troupe summons potent flow of Chinese energy

Monday, April 21, 2008
Star-Ledger Staff


Although she spends most of her time now sculpting movements that other people will perform, choreographer Nai-Ni Chen remains a wonderful dancer. Whenever she returns to the stage, in a solo like "Passage to the Silk River," Chen's grace and agility elevate performances by her Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company to a higher plane.

Chen danced "Passage to the Silk River" again, on Friday, probably so her company could recover between two athletic, full-throttle dances. Yet once again Chen's unassuming presence, draped in a white robe with long sleeves that descended below her hands, immediately brought the evening into sharper focus. The troupe, which is based in Fort Lee, appeared at the Theater of Raritan Valley Community College, in North Branch.

Curiously in this quiet, inward-looking solo the gushing images that the performer creates with the traditional "water sleeves" of her costume seem to emerge from her reverie. Despite the fleeting definition of sharply cut shapes, the dance has a restless quality and it can surprise -- for example, in a passage where Chen drops suddenly for a roll on the ground that exposes her feet. While "Passage to the Silk River" seems to hold opposing tendencies in balance, Chen's gentle expression lends the work poetry. She seems as spontaneous and free as a cloud passing overhead.

The group numbers on this satisfying program of (mostly) contemporary dance evinced a broad, dynamic range, from the delicacy of "Raindrops," where hands extended to catch the spattering rain or mimicked the torrent's course along the ground, to the impassioned duel between Selena Chau and Noibis Licea that comes at the center of "The Way of Five -- Fire." Yet in all these pieces, the transfer of energy seems to complete a cycle.

Rooted in traditional Chinese philosophy, Chen's work has a holistic quality that relates to the guided flow of "chi" energy through the body and across the stage. In "Raindrops," the dancers relay a movement impulse across space without touching, as if exchanging an air kiss. In "Unfolding," the dancers' wrists connect as if to pass an electric current. The performers draw deep breaths and empty their lungs, yet their motion remains calm, effortless and sustained. This use of breath may remind some viewers of the way a swimmer turns his head to gulp a mouthful of air, without interrupting his body's efficient slice through the water.

Chen sometimes uses simple props, as well as bodies, to define the stage space. Qiao Zeng was a fisherman punting upstream in "The River of Dreams," where his pole became a line dividing up and downstage areas, back and front. The pole also connects Zeng to the river spirit (Lindsey Parker) who is his constant companion; and it supports their intermingling.

In contrast, the batons that guest artist Lu Wen-Long deployed in his solo "The Legend of the Double Spear Warrior," were for virtuosic effect, making this spectacularly costumed but slightly off-balance excerpt from Kunque Opera resemble a kind of halftime show.

With its masked folkloric characters and towering giantess, the concluding "Festival" offered more than just a reduced version of the beloved Chinese New Year celebration that is a highlight of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's dance season. Yet here, too, intensely hued ribbons dazzled as the dancers tossed the ribbons in vivid streams, and wrapped themselves in whorls of bright fabric.

Robert Johnson may be reached at

No comments: