Friday, November 06, 2009

'Three Riddles of Turandot' presented by New Jersey Ballet

By Robert Johnson/The Star Ledger

November 05, 2009

Choreographer Nai-Ni Chen works with New Jersey Ballet dancers Kerry Mara Cox

and Andre Texeira to create "The Three Riddles of Turandot"

New Jersey Ballet Presents “The Three Riddles of Turandot”
Where: Community Theatre, Mayo Center for the Performing Arts, 100 South St., Morristown
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 7
How much: Tickets are $22-$42. Call (973) 539-8008 or visit

Dancers flash across the stage, flying or tumbling. Their movements can be so quick that a viewer’s eye barely has time to discern the pattern.

Yet if the dancing seems effortless, the task of choreographing it was anything but.
Just ask Nai-Ni Chen, the contemporary choreographer invited to create “The Three Riddles of Turandot” for the New Jersey Ballet. The work, inspired by Puccini’s famous opera, “Turandot,” will receive its premiere Saturday at the Community Theatre in Morristown as part of an adventurous mixed bill called “A World Tour of Dance.”

Chen says it took her five hours to create the first 90 seconds of “Turandot.” She spent half a day reaching for ideas and testing them, compressing her effort into a spare design. Now completed, the entire ballet is 18 minutes long, which, at five hours per 90 seconds,comes out to — well, you do the math.

“The process was slow for the first three days,” Chen says, although she laughs off the challenges of creating the new work and setting it on the performers.
The New Jersey Ballet’s classically trained dancers have never worked with Chen, and her style — full of spirals, back-rolls and unfamiliar gestures — needed to work its way into their muscles. For the first time, she invented steps for ballerinas on pointe.

“It’s a totally different body language,” Chen says, explaining that she didn’t even try to improvise in the studio, as she would have done if she were creating a dance for her own company. “I had to plan everything ahead of time.”

So as the opera’s lush orchestration gradually took possession of her consciousness, Chen found herself inventing phrases at odd moments. “I dream about the music. It’s a 24-hour thing,” she says.

She might have been cooking dinner, for instance. Suddenly an idea would come to her, and she had to try the movement right then and there. “I bump into things, bump into furniture,” Chen admits. Her 14-year-old daughter, Sylvia, though accustomed to her mother’s eccentricities, couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “She’ll say, ‘Okay, I didn’t see that,’ and she just walks away,” Chen says.

Meanwhile, the plot of the ballet unfolded in Chen’s imagination. A public execution is imminent. To avenge her ancestor, Princess Turandot has decreed that any man who seeks her hand in marriage must first answer three poetic riddles or face death. Yet another prospective suitor has failed the test, and as the disturbed crowd jostles for room, clemency is denied.

What kindles like a flame, but is not flame?
What is lily white, and dark?
What does the whole world implore?

Chen’s head was full of images. “A few years ago, I had a collaboration with the Westfield Symphony, and also with the Bohème Opera Company,” she says. “At that time, both companies were presenting ‘Turandot,’ and they asked me to choreograph for them. That’s when I started to get familiar with the story.

There’s a lot of meaning to it. It’s mysterious and very dramatic, and it has the potential to become a beautiful dance.”

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