Monday, February 13, 2012

Dancing for the dragon: Nai-Ni Chen celebrates Chinese New Year in Newark

Dancing for the Dragon: Nai-Ni Chen celebrates Chinese New Year in Newark
Robert Johnson/The Star-Ledger
Posted: 01/21/2012 11:26 AM

Celebrating the Chinese New Year with the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, audiences can count on seeing friendly lions, nimble acrobats and a dragon puppet that snakes in at the end, bringing prosperity and good luck.

This weekend’s “Year of the Dragon” program, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, will be no exception, its repertoire of dances enlivened by the chime of “coin-sticks” and the ripple of colorful streamers. A “Feast of the Dragon King” banquet follows the matinee performance on Saturday.

“You can express joy in different ways,” Chen says, however, explaining why her New Year’s program also features the premiere of “Whirlwind I,” a contemporary piece inspired by the choreographer’s travels along the old Silk Road in China.

“The traditional dances, of course, are bright and entertaining,” Chen adds. “But I think the audience will be ready for a change by the second half. Personally, I can’t just watch short, joyful pieces for two hours. I need something that makes me think.”

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company
Where: Victoria Theater at New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center St., Newark
When: Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
How much: $23 and $25; call (888) 466-5722 or visit Tickets that include admission to a 4 p.m. Saturday “Feast of the Dragon King” banquet are $100 for adults, $35 for children younger than 12. For banquet tickets, visit

The “Dragon Dance” will be more populous than ever this year, reinforced by students from Chen’s new junior company in Matawan. Chen herself will don flowing robes to perform her stylish solo, “Dance of the Heavenly Flower Maiden,” with movements based on the Beijing Opera classic. Harvesters will frolic. In the comic “Wedding Chamber” skit, by guest choreographer Ji-Gong Zhang, a bride and groom will nervously make each other’s acquaintance.

Yet this Chinese New Year celebration, with live assistance from the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, offers more than picturesque folklore.

“Whirlwind I,” a collaboration between Chen and award-winning percussionist and composer Glen Velez, will introduce young audience members to a slice of world history, and to the desert landscape that Silk Road traders once traversed in caravans. When Chen began to explore the ancient route last summer, however, she traveled comfortably by train and automobile, departing from the legendary city of Xi’an and journeying West to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Province, then north to the border of Kazakhstan.

Along the way, she noted the mix of ethnic groups that is one legacy of the trade route; in addition to observing local dances, she saw many whirlwinds. Chen says she got “a very spiritual feeling,” as the wind took up the desert sands and began to waltz with them, and as she thought about how many individuals had trod the path before her.

The whirlwind is a symbol of life—the “Great Breath of the universe,” Chen says, explaining why the dancers also vocalize in her production.

In workshops, Velez taught the cast to sing and introduced them to the percussive rhythms of Central Asia. Chen says her movements all grew from this breathing technique. Velez’s musical ensemble, the Ta Ka Di Mi Project, will accompany the premiere live.

“This piece is like a journey passing through different countries, and maybe from the past to the present to the future,” Chen says. “Everything has life and energy, even the rocks and the sand. How does nature perceive us? I put myself in the mind of the earth.”

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