Monday, February 01, 2010

Opening Doors with New and Old

Published: January 29, 2010

EXPRESSION THROUGH MOVEMENT Members of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company rehearsing at the Harlem School of the Arts for performances Feb. 13 and 14 in Newark. Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

THE dancer and choreographer Nai-Ni Chen tossed around terms like “movement vocabulary” at a recent rehearsal in Harlem for her company’s coming performances at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. And it was easy getting her to talk about the importance of educating audiences through modern works as notable for their boldness as their beauty. But ultimately, Ms. Chen wants the performances of her troupe, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, founded in Fort Lee in 1988, to be accessible.

Ms. Chen, 50, said that incorporating both modern and traditional dance “opens the door for a lot of people.”

“It lets them get interested,” she said.

Her company will present Chinese New Year shows on Feb. 13 and 14 at the performing arts center, as it has done for many years. Earlier in the week it will offer performances for school groups.

“There is so much treasure to be found in traditional dance,” Ms. Chen said. “Even though my company is modern, it would be stupid of me not to make use of that treasure.”

So Ms. Chen’s audiences generally see a mélange of dances: some modern, some traditional and some hybrids. In the performances at the arts center, for example, the company will wear traditional Chinese costumes and perform the familiar ribbon and lion dances to music played on Chinese instruments. But at some point during the 100-minute program the dancers will change into less vibrant costumes for “Earth,” a modern collaboration between Ms. Chen and Gerald Chenoweth, a composer and composition professor at the Mason Gross School fo the Arts at Rutgers University.

“Earth” is part of a five-piece cycle Ms. Chen began working on three years ago. (She has already explored water, for which Mr. Chenoweth also composed music, and fire; next she plans to tackle metal and wood.)

“Earth” has special significance this year, she said, alluding to the Chinese calendar. “This is the Year of the Tiger, and tigers are a very strong, earthy animal.”

Mr. Chenoweth, of Princeton, created the music for “Earth” on his computer, a process that he said afforded certain advantages. “Nai-Ni’s choreography will expand in certain areas or contract in others — she’ll say, ‘I need 45 seconds here’ — and the editing is very easy,” he said.

The music, which will be played from a CD for the Newark shows but may later be expanded to include a live percussionist, is “almost entirely percussion, a lot of gongs and cymbals,” said Mr. Chenoweth, 66. “It doesn’t sound like traditional Chinese music, though I’ve used some of the instruments.”

In the group’s recent rehearsal at the Harlem School of the Arts, eight of the troupe’s 10 members practiced a traditional Chinese folk dance. Four women whirled sequined scarlet scarves and bright pink silk fans while their male counterparts leapt athletically around and between them.

“They need the practice for this one,” Ms. Chen explained, as recorded music played and a coach shouted cues. “A lot of them didn’t major in traditional dance in college.”

Neither did Ms. Chen. She started dancing as a 4-year-old in Taiwan, and later trained there in ballet and folk dance before attending a performance arts school whose curriculum included modern dance, jazz and Chinese martial arts. While enrolled there, she joined the Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan, spending three years with the company. In 1982, she enrolled at New York University.

“After I came to the States I was more focused on curating dance,” she said. “My major was not just performance. It was education and choreography.”

Ms. Chen said that after N.Y.U. she thought, “I love to perform, but would that satisfy me as an artist, just doing the work of Western culture?”

Eventually she concluded that “my thirst for expressing myself, both East and West, could only happen through creating my own company.”

Four of Ms. Chen’s dancers are based near her home in Fort Lee, where she lives with her husband, Andy Chiang, the company’s executive director, and their daughter, Sylvia, 14. The rest live mainly in New York, and their backgrounds are varied. “One is from China, one is from Taiwan, one is from South Korea, one is from upstate New York,” Ms. Chen said.

What they share is respect for the many forms of expression through movement.

“This is my first season, and I knew nothing about Chinese before I started,” said Nijawwon Matthews, 23, of Fort Lee, who is black. “I’ve danced with a lot of companies, but this was a brand-new experience for me.

“One thing I’ve learned is that Chinese dance comes from a let-go place,” he said during a break in rehearsal. “You have to be incredibly detailed and athletic, but it also takes you to a place in your imagination. It’s made me humble. I’ve learned to be humble.”

The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company will perform at the Victoria Theater in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center Street, Newark, on Feb. 13 and 14 at 2 p.m. or (888) 466-5722.

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