Friday, February 11, 2011

'Year of the Rabbit' review: Dancing to bring luck, fortune to the New Year

Published: Wednesday, February 09, 2011, 8:00 AM
By Robert Johnson/The Star-Ledger

Putting your left fist into your right hand, and then wishing your neighbor a Happy Chinese New Year, will bring good luck and happiness.

That’s according to Andy Chiang, the executive director of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, which welcomed the Year of the Rabbit with a boisterous Chinese New Year celebration at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Saturday.

It worked! The happiness started immediately, as soon as Chiang concluded his introduction and the curtain rose on the “Lion Dance,” an annual tradition featuring two men in a lion suit with a spectacular, wooden mask and the lion’s acrobatic handler.

In a shower of good fortune, the program also offered a striking Kunque Opera solo; a song recital by guest artists; folk dance favorites; and samples from Chen’s modern repertory displaying the sinuous and appealing physicality that is one of her trademarks.

The first duet of the evening showcased an odd couple. While the acrobat, Yao-Zhong Zhang, remained cheerfully deadpan, channeling his energy into foot-slapping leaps, his furry companion, the lion, was more relaxed and expressive. Though tempted by the toy that the acrobat held out to him, this jovial beast was too tame to charge after it, flopping on the ground to bite at imaginary fleas and needing to be roused from a nap.

lyrical partner

In “Duet on the River of Dreams,” Saki Masuda made a lyrical partner for Francisco Silvino, the boatman poling along an eternal stream. While he remained weighted, offering her support and framing her with the pole, Masuda embarked on playful adventures, always returning, however, to her place beside him.

Min Zhou and Wei Yao were the young couple flirting in “The Love Song of Xishuangbanna,” based on the traditional dances of the Dai people of Yunnan Province. Their oblique, twisting moves and finicky gestures, with the index finger bent, suggested the influence of neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.

Zhang returned in “The Double Spear Warrior,” an episode from Kunque Opera, an ancient Chinese performing art. Preening and striking poses in a costume that extended the lines of his body, with an extravagant, feathered headdress and platform shoes, Zhang was still able to twirl two batons and perform gymnastic feats.

Chen’s contemporary ensemble pieces were the most ambitious works on the program, however, from the wary and intensely contained “Way of Five — Fire,” in which the dancers sparred and brandished large fans as if they were weapons, to “Bamboo Prayer,” a dance in which bamboo poles created an environment trembling with life and energy.

Varying the mood and style, guest musicians David M. Liao and Linda Xia offered a trio of classical songs, his baritone warm and caressing to her piano accompaniment.

The matinee concluded with the “Dragon Dance,” actually a suite in which the title character, a serpentine puppet with gleaming, golden scales, made his appearance surrounded by dances in which the performers manipulated colorful ribbons, flags and kerchiefs. This kaleidoscopic ending placed the final, seal of good luck on the event, expressing everyone’s hopes for a New Year just as bright.

Photo by Joseph Wagner

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