Monday, March 08, 2010

Review: Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company

Jan 31st, 2010

By Jasmina Wellinghoff
Special to the Express-News

The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company which appeared at the Carver Community Cultural Center Saturday night, is easily one of the most interesting dance groups we have seen in a long while.

Led by Taiwan-born Nai-Ni Chen, the New Jersey-based company cast a spell over the audience by weaving a tapestry of elegant dances set to unusual, goose-bump inducing musical scores. With a background in both Chinese traditional styles and modern dance, Chen blends the two genres in her choreography in a most auspicious manner. She also knows how to use props to add both visual and narrative dimensions to her work.

The evening opened with "Bamboo Prayer," featuring five white-clad women -- including Chen -- holding bamboo sticks at least twice their height. At first the women crouched while holding the poles pointing upward. Then the dance unfolded with dignified poise as they proceeded to create images of work and rituals with their bodies and their sticks. The latter were thrust out and bounced off the floor in unison, crossed in the air, arranged in patterns on the ground for the women to step in and out of, held between toes and pulled back and forth between pairs of dancers like stretchy cloth. Eventually, the dancers gathered in a circle, their poles held at an angle in front of them, crossing each other and thumping the floor.

The program notes said that that the bamboo used was rattan, which is known for its flexibility. Evidently, the choreographer was making a statement about the nature of women who may bend, work and suffer but do not break.

Another strong group piece in Act I was "The Way of Five - Fire," which refers to fire as one of the five elements of creation according to ancient Chinese thinking. (The others are wood, water, metal and earth.) With dancers wearing red outfits, the piece built up gradually like fire would, from crisp sparks to wild flames. The props were fans held by both men and women but these fans were no dainty feminine accessories. Brandished like weapons and forcefully snapped shut and boldly redeployed, they conveyed aggression or might. The feeling of gathering force -- or maybe passion -- was underscored by the overall choreography, which included strong elements of martial arts. The audience loved it.

The most traditionally Chinese number was "Passage to the Silk River," a solo by Chen. She appeared on stage, a small figure in white, wearing "water sleeves," which are very long, loose silk sleeves that hang way down over the hands. With exquisite art movements, she brought them to life and made them dance with her, undulating like waves, twirling like whirlpools or trailing behind like quiet streams.

In Act II, however, the most memorable number was a very different piece, "Dancing with the Yak," set to a Tibetan folk song and choreographed by Shu Ze-Hong. Featuring striking folk costumes, the dance opened with two men (Chien-Hao Chang and Wei Yao) bent and arranged so that their bodies and costumes created a shape of a yak, while a young woman (Min Zhou) stood right behind them. The lights were low; it could have been early morning in the mountains. Then the guys rearranged themselves, raising their opposite arms to look like horns, and she hopped on the back of the "yak." They cavorted together, the men often stepping about in imitation of the animal's gait, and all three dancing with long sleeves similar to the water sleeves, which is apparently a Tibetan tradition as well. At the end, they settled down sweetly together for the night.

Two other dances -- "Incense" in Act I and "Raindrops" in Act II -- were complex and appealing but both went on for too long without offering either narrative or aesthetic reasons for their length.

However, the finale "Mirage," though also longish, did accomplish its apparent mission of conveying a sense of journey through harsh, desert landscapes when people see dancing mirages on the far horizon. Here, there were elements of Indian dance in the head movements and the barefoot stamping of the ground. As the journey abruptly dissolved, the mesmerized audience might have felt that they, too, had seen a mirage, a gorgeous mirage of chiseled dancing bodies.

With the exception of the Tibetan piece and the Peking Opera-styled "Passage to the Silk River, the dances were set to original scores that can best be described as richly textured. Gongs, bells, whispers, howls, chanting, murky crowd noises, drumming of all shades, echoes, meditative sounds and more complemented rather than accompanied the dancing.

Besides the dancers already mentioned, the cast included Julie Judlova, Kerry Lee, Chu-Ying Ku, Chun-Yu Lin, Nijawwon Matthews and Jung Hm Jo.

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