Nai-Ni Chen melds East and West to suit her creativity
by Robert Johnson/The Star-Ledger Thursday April 23, 2009, 2:43 PM
Nai-ni Chen Dance Company. Where: Community Theatre, Mayo Center for the Performing Arts, 100 South St., Morristown. When: 8 p.m. Saturday. How much: $20-$40. Call (973) 539-8008 or visit mayoarts.org.
Nai-Ni Chen has grown accustomed to living in two worlds.
The contemporary choreographer, whose Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company presents "Silk and Bamboo" Saturday at Mayo Center for the Performing Arts in Morristown, brought centuries' worth of Chinese culture with her when she came to the United States from her native Taiwan in 1982. She now lives with her family in Fort Lee.
At first, Chen says, she tried to embrace American ways of thinking.
"I was trying to create something very abstract," she says, describing her search for a completely new movement vocabulary. "I put what I had learned in the past into my pocket and didn't go there."
Yet Chen discovered that her rich Chinese heritage was not easy to ignore. Now the two perspectives, Chinese and American, balance each other in her work. The Morristown performance will include the New Jersey premiere of "Crosscurrent," a duet in which the physical tension between the dancers reflects a cultural clash. This tension abates as rival currents begin to mingle.
The other novelty on the program is actually a revival. Chen describes "Calligraphy II," which she created in 1995, as pivotal. It was the first dance in which she allowed herself to dip into the pocket where she kept her Chinese identity.
"I saw the calligraphy hanging in my living room, and I thought, 'Oh, gosh, the inspiration is right here in front of me. I walk past it every day,'" Chen says. "I found that I could look deeper and see movements and ideas. I realized it was time for me to go back to my roots and dig."
"Calligraphy II" turned into an ambitious collaboration with a commissioned score by American composer Joan La Barbara and a set designed by Myun Hee Cho. Under Chen's influence, La Barbara incorporated instruments and vocal effects from Beijing Opera. Yet she also employed chance procedures to write the score, adapting an avant-garde technique pioneered by John Cage. Cho created a backdrop and hanging panels decorated with a style of calligraphy called wild cursive.
Chen explains that most Chinese characters are written with several strokes of the ink brush, but in wild cursive each character is formed with a single stroke, bringing the act of writing closer to dancing. "It's more passionate and without restrictions," Chen says.
She adds that, like fine calligraphy, her choreography channels energy to achieve a harmonious balance between positive and negative space. Although "Calligraphy II" is an abstract work in which the dancers' relationships to one another remain as guarded and oblique as the metaphors in classical Chinese poetry, the performers' awareness of the space around them imbues the dance with strength and vitality.
Sharing the evening with "Crosscurrent" and "Calligraphy II" will be three dynamic group works inspired by various aspects of Chinese culture: "Bamboo Prayer;" "The Way of Five -- Fire," incorporating elements of martial arts; and "Mirage," which draws upon the folk dance traditions of Xinjiang Province in Western China.
"I focus on exploring what I think is the essence of Chinese tradition," Chen says. "Then I use those ideas as inspiration to create contemporary work."