Dance Review: Nai-Ni Chen’s Company Rides Magnificently on Cloud Nine at Baruch PAC
Celebrating twenty years of Chinese traditional and contemporary dance magic, Nai-Ni Chen's company enchants and amazes this past Saturday at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. A former member of Cloud Gate and a native of Taiwan, Chen has the stunning ability to fuse her Chinese heritage with her experience as an American immigrant, a fusion that creates her unique voice in dance. Nai-Ni Chen's diligently composed art is vividly alive in her dancers’ bodies. The two repertory works, Calligraphy II (1995) and Bamboo Prayer (1998), mesh well with the three premiers of Crosscurrent, Q (Quest) and the breathtaking Mirage. The dancers, who perform at forty venues a year, have crystal clear movement and are perfectly in tune with Nai-Ni’s vision.
Her movement style is not only deeply visceral, but also possesses a rare combination of impressive dancer physicality, choreographic vision and universal chi (energy). The backbone of Nai-Ni’s company is her impeccable artistry and storytelling genius. Her pieces softly grab you as they elevate Chinese culture and illustrate the beauty of the modern dance vernacular. This lucky audience continues to experience the ingenious art from start to finish as the talented company executes her mastery.
In Calligraphy II (1995), the stage is draped in black muslin strips with white Chinese calligraphy. The piece has been reworked several times according to sources, and the evolution has fruited fine results. The work opens with a single dancer tracing a choreographic sequence that is reminiscent of tai-chi. More dancers appear, and the same strength is seen in their bodies as they define space with clear intentions. The work builds slowly, as if teaching the audience the patience that is required to practice calligraphy. Eventually, one settles in and takes in the energy or “chi”, which is evident in all the movements.
Nai-Ni appears on stage in this piece with long silk sleeves and performs a striking solo. She is a captivatingly beautiful to watch as she puts her stunning technique on display. Her performance breathes life into the Asian dance styles while showing her love of dancing them.
The ribbon dance is the highlight of Calligraphy II as color after color cuts through the space, flying through air and encircling the dancers’ bodies. Ribbon dancers say, "to watch the end of the ribbon, to see the clarity of the performer." There are no weak strokes on stage in Nai-Ni’ Chen's company.
Bamboo Prayer (1998) is a seminal work about the resilience of women and the nobility of bamboo, each symbolic of the other. The long twelve foot poles stand erect in the beginning as the dancers just makes them quiver. Each section builds and is more beautiful than the last as the poles divide the space and compliment the bodies of the women. Each pole is bent, beaten and lain on top of the other. The dance highlights the versatility of bamboo and the subtle power of the female frame. If women are like the bamboo as Nai-Ni describes through movement, then more power to us!
Another standout work is the premiere of Q for “Quest”. Singling out one dancer is difficult as all the company members are worth the ticket. However, Noibis Licea from Cuba takes the audience to another level when he starts his solo. Blessed with full bodied flexibility and amazing focus, he captivates with every movement. The work expresses primal angst as he beats his bare chest. His lines are beautiful, especially in the movements that pitch sideways before flawlessly returning to center. It is unclear why, with a piece entitled ‘quest’, Nai-Ni keeps the dancer confined to such a small space. Yet, Noibis breaks through the limited space with his moments of intense passion before resolving the piece on a quieter note as he walks slowly in a circle around himself.
Chen's latest work, Mirage, takes a journey on the Silk Road through the eastern-most part of China’s Xinjiang province. The piece is reminiscent of a time spent in Egypt where the road ahead constantly blurs, and the dusty heat creates dancing visions. The trace imagery of Indian dance styles is seen as the dancers beat their heels on the floor and snake their heads from side to side. The dancers, grouped together in three rows, move hypnotically closer and then further away. They sway and then join bodies in order to become multi-limbed spirits.
Nai-Ni uses the color of parched earth to introduce visions of sweltering heat. Clever invention shows itself in the layering of costumes, which includes a transition from velvet textured browns to overlaid skirts of deeper blue and watery purple. Nai-Ni returns to the stage to dance the dance that represents the curious state of not knowing if the vision is real, but not caring. Her watery presence marks the transition into fantasy.
Some people in the audience loved it a little too much and started snapping ‘unauthorized’ pictures of the work. But, the iDanz police stepped in to squash that nonsense by tapping his shoulder. He looked back at me (with press kit and sharpened pencil in hand) before quietly turning off his camera.
Don’t steal art! Nai-Ni Chen worked extremely hard to create this new work, and a great success at that. This is a company that I will be following for many years to come.
Photography by Michael Cuno
iDANZ Critix Corner
Official Dance Review by Sasha Deveaux
Performance: Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company
Choreographer: Nai-Ni Chen
Venue: Baruch Performing Arts Center
Performance Date: March 14, 2009