When Nai-Ni Chen watches the changing of the seasons from her home on the East Coast she sees not only one of Mother Nature's greatest visual spectacles but also gets inspiration she can use in her day job.
"Ever since I was a little child I was very observant of nature," Chen said during a recent phone interview. "I would watch the clouds in the sky and the seasons change and it was like, somehow, I was born with a lot of interest in these things and I use them in my choreography. I see the colors. I feel the rhythm and I see the imagery change so I use nature as a subject."
Born in Taiwan, Chen began her training at the young age of four, specializing in Chinese dance. As a teenager, she branched out into various other styles of the dance genre as well as martial arts and music study. She began her professional dance career just out of college and has been on stage ever since.
Artistic Director and Choreographer Chen started Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in 1988 and, together with nine additional touring dancers, she has since won dozens of awards and critical acclaim for the unique style and vision she calls "cross cultural contemporary."
"I have a lot of training in traditional Chinese dance and the culture and philosophy but I've also been in this country for a long time so I'm trained as a modern dancer and choreographer so my work combines both cultures," she said. "My dancers also have very strong backgrounds and come from very different places like China, Korea, Brazil and the United States. It's a very international company and once they join the company they all bring their own specialties and their diverse unity which the others will learn. We are basically immersed into this unique style of unity."
Inland Empire residents can experience Chen's work this weekend as the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company comes to Old Town Temecula. The performance will include seven pieces from the company's vast repertoire.
"We will be doing a unique program that will include some of my jewels; my signature pieces that I have done over the past 20 years," Chen said. "Some are original choreography and there are a few folk dances as well. It should be a good mix."
The Temecula performance begins with an original work by Chen entitled "Raindrops."
"'Raindrops' is modern choreography and it is inspired by my childhood memories," she said. "I was born and brought up in a city North in Taiwan. It was a city by a seaport and it rained a lot. This dance is very joyful because it's a mixing of my childhood memories and how playful you can be during a rainy day as a child. It's just very lyrical and very sweet and very sentimental for me. It's a place that's very far away from me now but it's always in you."
A second piece, entitled "Incense," draws upon Chen's religious upbringing for inspiration.
"I remember I would go to temple and see the incense burning and people use it as a way to communicate with their god," Chen said. "I go to this country and see many artists and many other religions using it. We are so vulnerable and want to communicate with a higher being and somehow we use incense as a way to give our prayers. So, it's a piece that's very spiritual and very physical."
An additional piece being performed this weekend is "Bamboo Prayer," which pays tribute to one very symbolic plant.
"This piece describes how, in Chinese tradition, bamboo means a lot," Chen said. "It means justice and it means humility. It grows straight up into the sky but is flexible and I relate that to women's spirits. I feel that females have a lot of strength and willpower but we're very flexible. So, in this dance I use five female dancers with long bamboo poles. It's kind of like a ritual ceremony where we celebrate women's lives."
In a fourth dance, entitled "Mirage," Chen's choreography, combined with original music from Grammy winning composer Glen Velez, the audience is transported into the desert as the dancers depict the caravan of the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang province of western China.
"I really wanted to show the spirit of this group of people as well as bring the mystery of the desert scene," Chen said. "So, I open the scene with only one dancer in this desert back drop and he is essentially moving very slowly toward the audience to take them into a dream world; slowly moving toward the climatic celebration."
With seven unique works combined with the diverse cultural backgrounds of herself and her dancers, Chen promises the performance of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company has something for everyone.
"My work is very accessible and the choice of pieces are very colorful and can be appreciated by anybody," Chen said. "Certainly a beginner who's never been to dance before will have a great experience. I think they would take home a very special feeling, a certain spirit, which is common throughout the whole program."
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company
8 p.m. Feb. 11-12
Old Town Temecula Community Theater, 42051 Main Street, Temecula