Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Celebrating Chinese New Year: serpentine dancers greet the Year of the Snake

By Robert Johnson/The Star-Ledger
on February 05, 2013 at 11:41 AM, updated February 05, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Min Zhou and the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in 'Double Lions Welcoming the Spring'
The lions who announce the Chinese new Year are large enough to hold two people inside, but they're not man-eaters.

They're adorable puppets with orange fur and painted heads.  When they snap at a toy, their jaws shut with a dull, wooden clap.

These lions don't need to roar.  Just being a lion puppet is enough.  "The lions chase away evil and bring good luck for the coming year," says choreographer Nai-Ni Chen, whose Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company celebrates the Lunar New Year with a program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center this weekend.

"Double Lions Welcoming the Spring" is a favorite item on these concers, which combine colorful traditions from Chinese dance and opera with music, acrobatics and a taste of Chen's contemporary work.  Since the incoming year is the Year of the Snake in the Chinese zodiac, the festivities will have a serpentine theme.

A highlight will be an excerpt from the opera "Legend of the White Snake."  The White Snake is a beautiful goddess who, in the dramatic finale, must battle with the Crane and with the Deer to obtain a sacred herb that will save her husband's life.

Chen says that Ying Chan Li, who specializes in the female warrior roles known as "Wu Dan," will play the White Snake in an ornamental headdress that an expert dresser needs two hours to assemble.  "You're going to see fantastic cosutmes," she promises.

Less spectacular but still charming, 15 children from the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company's youth ensemble will perform "The Golden Snake," a ribbon dance whose undulating patterns follow the snake's slithering path.

An ensemble of six women will perform the rhythmic "Coin-stick Dance" of the Bai cultural minority, shaking wands that double as musical instruments.  New company member Ying Shi will be the featured soloist in "The Song of the Water Lily."

Folk dances such as this one, Chen says, are choreographed by teams and taught throughout China after making an appearance at national competitions.  The authentic parts of the dance, she says, are the turns and spirals that appear as the dancer coordinates the movements of her head and hands with small running steps.  The fan that spreads to resemble a blossoming flower is a modern invention, however.

The men of the company will have a chance to remove their lion costumes and strech in a new version of Chen's contemporary piece "Whirlwind," based on her experiences traveling the old Silk Road in China.

While this piece remains a work in progress, Chen says she has added an athletic section for the men inspired by Mongolia's favorite sports: wrestling and horseback rideing/  "to them the horse is scared.  A lot of the movements are very bold."  "Whirlwind" has music by Glen Velez.

Audience members can also sign up to attend a Chinese New Year Banquet, following the show on Sunday.  Chen says she keeps the banquet in mind when programming the dances.  Balancing flavors is the key.

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