Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company's 'Dragons on the Wall' celebrates freedom, growth and change

Published: Tuesday, May 17, 2011, 10:40 AM

By Robert Johnson/The Star-Ledger

NEW YORK — The dancers lie folded upon themselves and rounded like stones at the start of "Dragons on the Wall (Tianji)," a dance of rare intensity that the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, from Fort Lee, revived on Friday at Dance Theater Workshop.

Strewn across the floor and mostly isolated, they seem immovable and beyond reach.

Yet the great force that compressed these figures resides latent within them. In the background, the amplified sound of breathing suggests this scene is not a barren field, but an incubator. Each human knot is tense, awaiting the moment when a hidden spring will release it. When the dancers unlock their limbs and assemble in a circle on the floor, arms stretching toward a common center, the slow revolutions of this design suggest the inevitability of growth and change.

Despite the darkness of its scenes — almost the whole dance is cast in gloomy shadows — "Dragons" is an optimistic piece. The struggle that it portrays, as bodies attempt to escape confinement with sharp exhalations of breath, is a struggle that must be won. Pushed to the back of the stage and arrayed in a line, individuals make their way forward cautiously yet determinedly, ignoring whatever it is that makes them cringe and dodge. Notably they do not need to work together to achieve their goal. The desire to cross this space works inside each one like a hidden motor, an inborn yearning for freedom.

Inspired by the poetry of Chinese dissident writer Bei Dao, by ancient legends and by the challenges that beset the world today, "Dragons" is an ambitious piece. It comes elaborately dressed with props, projections and hanging fabric, all of which looked more elegant in 2001, when this dance made its debut on a proscenium stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

At DTW, viewers peer down into a pit, and Chen Shen’s scenery, which should dominate the space, is not as lofty or as magical in effect.

The dance remains filled with images of mysterious potency, however, reinforced by the aura of whispering, clanging sounds composed by Joan La Barbara, and by the dancers’ own strangled cries. At one point, sheets of paper rain down from the sky. Fragile things, they are easily disposed of. Yet not before a woman rescues some. Her eyes widen, as she contemplates the significance of the precious sheaf of papers in her hands.

Duets seem wary and mistrustful, conducted just out of reach of watchmen who pass by carrying lanterns. Yet in the small space that remains to them, the partners seem to find a haven where they can rest undisturbed.

Long sheets of fabric unfurl, and dancers slide along them on their backs working their way upstream. Others gather on the shore, as if waiting to embark. Although much of the choreography has a stolid, sculptural quality, the impulse to move builds gradually gathering momentum until it finally explodes as calligraphic action-painting.

In the finale, all restrictions seem lifted. Dragging heavy tubs to the border of a canvas, the dancers fling water into the air, and smear the stage with gleaming jets of ink. Never has the act of writing seemed so all-consuming or so liberating. Significantly, only when Chen’s characters can taste freedom do they form a genuine community.

Robert Johnson: rjohnson@starledger.com

Read the review on NJ.com

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