Friday, October 29, 2010

Oberon's Grove Review of Moon Festival in Harlem

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in Harlem

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Saturday October 16, 2010 - You have no idea how time-consuming it is to blog about dance in New York City. It's a full-time job, especially if it's to be kept current. Every single day I get invitations to performances I'd love to go to, but it's simply not possible to do it all. Only rarely these days do I get a chance to try a new company but this evening I made time in my schedule and went with Kokyat to see Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company performing at the Harlem School of the Arts.

Kokyat and I see so many wonderful dancers in our travels; we see them performing, rehearsing, taking class, at intensives or taking auditions. Once in a while a dancer makes a special impression and it was one of these - Jamison Goodnight - who drew us to the Nai-Ni Chen performance tonight. I first saw Jamison at an audition for Amy Marshall Dance Company and I thought she had that special something that made me want to see more of her dancing. She performed in Amy's production, and when Kokyat and I were setting up our first blog photoshoot, Jamison was someone we wanted to be a part of it. She was so great to work with and so beautiful to watch in that up-close setting. She told us she had just joined Nai-Ni Chen and about the upcoming perfomances. Kokyat and I were genuinely excited to watch Jamison performing from the front row tonight and we were honestly thrilled by her beauty, intensity and her passion for dancing.

Every dancer in Nai-Ni's company proved to have a similar spark, making this evening a real treat to watch. And Nai-Ni Chen has created works of extraordinary poetic power and grace; in her fusion of traditional Asian dance elements with the spacious breadth of movement of contemporary Western dance, Nai-Ni offers a bridge between two cultures and she has the choreographic wisdom, the musical taste and the vivid imagination to transport us to another world.

Six works were offered tonight, two of them (Incense and The Way of Five - Fire) zoomed to the highest echelon of dance pieces that I've seen in the past twelve years. But in fact, there was not a weak link on the programme. And the music Nai-Ni has selected was an integral part of the evening's success. Superb lighting (by Tony Marques) and costuming (various designers, all of them enhancing the dancers' attractiveness and movement) gave the production added visual flair.

In Incense, four dancers clad in white move in mysterious rituals to a score by Joan LaBarbara. Hypnotic humming mingled with the sounds of nature give way to drumming as the dancers waft thru the choreographic patterns with a wondrously rapt quality. Ethereal lifts evoke the ascendance of prayers to heaven. Here Jamison and the exquisite Riyo Mito were simply gorgeous to watch while the two beautifully bare-chested boys - Jung Hm Jo and Wei Yao - were thrilling in their combination of poetry and strength. By the end of Incense, Kokyat and I were major Nai-Ni Chen fans.

The delicate sound of small bells chiming created the feel of Raindrops falling in the second and equally fascinating work. Four women are clad in satiny gowns over soft trousers; their sense of wonder to be caught in the gentle rain was charmingly depicted. The women (Ekaterina Chernikhova, Julie Judlova, Saki Masuda and Riyo Mito) each have solo passages in which we can enjoy their individual personalities. Translucent parasols are in play and the music evolves to gently percussive sounds. There came a moment that seemed to me to be a lovely final image of the dance but alas, another section followed - a celebratory finale - which was well-crafted and finely-danced but which ended Raindrops in a pleasant but less-poetic way.

Moving to the southern borders of China, Love Song of Xishuangbanna is a duet which shows the influence of Laotian and Burmese traditional dance. In richly coloured costumes, dancers Min Zhou and Wei Yao express the love poetry of the culture in which the courting man refers to the object of his affection in with floral allusions. The dancers moved fluently to the traditional folk tunes of the Dai people: yet another Nai-Ni chen jewel.

The Way of Five - Fire: the music of Tan Dun signaled a brilliant finale to the first half of the evening as five dancers, clad in vivid scarlet costumes with flared trousers, leapt and swirled about the stage in a striking dance depicting the element of Fire and its role in the ever-changing phenomena of Nature. Each dancer carried a large fan which is flicked open and closed in rhythmic patterns that illuminate the movement. This astonishingly gorgeous piece featured a striking trio for women (Saki Masuda, Jamison Goodnight and Ekaterina Chernikhova) and a combative, martial arts-styled duet for two men (Francisco Silvino and Jung Hm Jo). Tan Dun's score, with its magnificently throbbing rhythms, supported the dancers perfectly and the combination of music, movement, costuming and lighting resulted in a fascinating theatrical experience.

The second part of the evening began with the dancers in silhouette in Mirage, danced to music by Glen Velez. The sound of the gong resonates here, and the dance is inspired by the desert-dwelling tribes of the Uyghur peoples. There is a long solo with a veil danced with a tranquil sense of mystery by Ms. Chen, and in another section the slow pacing of the dancers was a simple but wonderfully expressive moment.

Min Zhou, clad in soft white like a bride in a dress spangled with peacock appliques and wearing a peony in her hair, was a pure delight in Peacock Dance. She uses her entire body to express the actions of the sacred peacock, a bird revered by the Dai people of Yunan province. Traditional Dai music in dulcimer style provides the aural imagery for the dancer in a charming portrayal of the peacock's movements which Ms. Zhou expressed with delicate and slightly ironic gestures.

Finally, Festival sets the Nai-Ni Chen dancers in a bravura celebration of the traditional Dragon Boat Festival. Banners and swirling long ribbons of fabric create joyous, flowing movement patterns while masques and an enormously tall figure (one dancer atop another's shoulders, covered in a long gown) add comic touches. Colourful folk costuming and music give the work a buoyant feeling of happiness.

Kokyat found after the performance that he could have photographed the whole evening; it's a shame we didn't clarify that beforehand because the images all thru the performences were just strikingly wonderful. He did take a couple of shots during the bows, top and here:

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I am hoping to have some images from the production taken by the Company's photographer and to post them here soon.

So: we have a new and exciting addition to our dance company A-list and we are looking forward to following Nai-Ni Chen's work in the future and hopefully getting to know her and her dancers and watch them at close range.

In the immediate future there will be performances at Harlem School of the Arts on December 2nd thru 5th featuring music by composer Kenji Bunch (yay Kenji!) performed live by the Ahn Trio. Following tour dates ranging from California to Montreal, Ni-Ni Chen will be at Dance Theater Workshop May 13th - 15th, 2011. And we will surely be there also!

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