Dance: "Temptation of the muses" - preview with choreographer Nai-Ni Chen
March 7, 2012
By Eugene Chan, Queens Fine Arts Examiner
Founded in 1988, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company is an organization where the influences of the East (such as martial arts movements) meets West (modern dance discipline). In preview of an upcoming performance of "Temptation of the muses" here is an interview with group founder and artistic director Nai-Ni Chen.
Q1: Brief explain the origins of how "Temptation of the muses" came about.
A1 (Chen): In 2010, the intial idea was inspired by a poem called "A word for freedom" by Latif Nazemi, a Persian poet originally from Afghanistan. It was at a time when the company got a "Live music for dance" grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Next, based on past associations we decided to work the Ahn Trio (made up of 3 Korean-born sisters) who play throughout "Temptation of the muses." The Ahn trio knew of NY-based Japanese-American composer Kenji Bunch who would write a new piece called "Concrete stream."
Q2: Why the title "Concrete stream?"
A2: It was Bunch's reaction to Nazemi's treatment of water in "A word for freedom." Working off of Bunch's interpretation of the poem, for the dancers stream came to mean the flow of movement across the confines of a stage. The use of the word stone in the poem made Bunch think of concrete in an urban setting. So concrete stream took on another layer of meaning -- freedom within structure-- like the way a big city or a dance can be.
Q3: This will be the fifth time the group will be performing "Temptation of the muses" since its premier at Harlem School of the Arts Theater in December 2010. How has the work evolved since that debut?
A3: It has evolved in two specific ways. Since the staging involves having the instrumentalists not be stationary, pianist Lucia Ahn came to me and said I want to be involved with the movement on stage. It took awhile to figure out how to do that, but early on in the piece I have Lucia with the dancers doing a pedestrian walk.
"Yu Ryung" is a section that features Jazz composer Pat Metheyny's music. My first reaction to the music's lyricism made me think about individuals in a city trying to enjoy a little piece of nature in the urban jungle. When I learned that "Yu Ryung" meant spirit or ghost in Korean, and that definition was the basis for Metheny's intent--it spurred me to make small changes to the dance.
Q4: In a composer's note you said that you gave the dancers a lot of freedom to express themselves while working on "Temptation of the muses." Have you always worked that way or is this practice a more recent development?
A4: It depends. When I have a clear vision of what a work is about, I take charge strongly. When I don't have a clear vision and I'm exploring an idea, the dancers are encouraged to contribute to the process.
As an example, say at one point during the process of creating a dance I have three sets of male/female dancers pair off. I throw two words at them like, "connect" and "disconnect," and then I ask them to improvise.
The pairs then explore those words. One pair might click and pop immediately, another pair might experiment and grind for quite awhile. Watching their processes gives me ideas to consider when creating a piece.
Q5: What qualities do you look for in a dancer who is looking to join the company?
A5: First I go beyond the personal background of a dancer, and consider how will they best fit into my concept. Of course a candidate must have strong, fundamental technique. Beyond that, I'm looking for a dancer who doesn't just move through a given space, but physically inhabits it. Simply by the way a dancer walks I can get a clue to their personality. I find it's hard for dancers to lie with their bodies.
Equally important is a candidate who shows open-mindedness to new styles and ideas. I've had some candidates who were technically exceptional, but set in their approach based on their training and therefore wouldn't be a good match. Also, a dancer who isn't shy about providing feedback can provide me with information that will inform my choreography. When starting on a work whose concept I'm unsure of, both of the aforementioned qualities can make my life easier.
Q6: Talk about the economic challenges the company has faced over the last three years.
This company has made it for 23 years, so we know how to survive during economic downtimes, but it has been rough. When times are good, my company has an atypical capacity to have 40 full-time total workweeks.
Right now it's just 20 full-time workweeks with some part-time opportunities.
That said, things are slowly improving as we are getting more performance requests and funding streams are starting to trickle in again. In my experience, economic climate for dance cannot get worse than it was during the low point of 2009 -10.
Q7: What is the technically or interpretatively most difficult section for the dancers in "Temptation of the muses?"
Technically, the finale called "Groove box" is hard because there are parts of this section that require the male dancer among many things, to sustain handstands of considerable duration while displaying total command over his entire body.
From an interpretive standpoint, a particularly difficult section is called "Lullaby." I have a certain idea of the meaning behind "Lullaby," but communicating that idea through physical movement is a challenge. I don't reveal too much in the program notes about this section though, because I want an audience member to come at this part from their own viewpoint.
Q8: Does audience feedback-- whether it's the person who pays for a ticket or someone in your creative circle-- matter enough to influence the development of a given piece?
A8: Andrew Chiang is executive director of the company and his opinion means most to me. He also happens to be my husband and is often the ensemble's toughest critic. He was a dance student in his younger days and has so many years in this business in an administrative role, including a stint with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
For me, I think that dance companies should regularly hold question and answer sessions with audience members as much as possible. This, to break through the third wall and get their feedback whether positive or negative.
I'm confident in my abilities, but not stubborn. If I hear useful criticism, I'll use it to grow as an artist.
This Saturday at 8 pm, the New Jersey-based group will be performing "Temptation of the Muses" at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City, Queens. Tickets: $15/advance, $20/door. DirectionsArticle Link: http://www.examiner.com/fine-arts-in-new-york/dance-preview-temptation-of-the-muses-interview-of-choreographer-nai-ni-chen