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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Dances of Two Cultures

Cultural fusion has become a commonplace of our

shrinking

world. But in the arts, the meeting of cultures can bear rich fruit,

new works that are charged with a unique hybrid vigor.

The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, founded in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in

1988, has brought just such vigor and vision to the art of dance.

The traditionally-trained Nai-Ni Chen left her native China as a young

artist for the promise and adventure of American modern dance. Now

her company draws on both worlds for programs of dance that entertain

and enlighten audiences of all ages.

The Nai-Ni Chen Company brings its "Dragon’s Tale" program

of traditional and modern dances to the State Theater in New

Brunswick,

on Sunday, March 2, at 1 and 4 p.m. A student matinee is also offered

on Monday, March 3, at 10 a.m.

Created for families to share, the hour-long program is designed to

display the excitement and beauty of the Chinese American heritage

through traditional dance steps, as well as martial arts and

acrobatics.

It features colorful costumes, fantastic props, and ingenious

choreography,

both ancient and modern.

"Dragon’s Tale" is rooted in such traditional folk dances

as the Lion Dance, a dance found in Chinese communities around the

globe, often performed to ring in the New Year. Nai-Ni Chen’s

"Lion

Dance," depicts a powerful red and golden beast playing with a

small child. Chen says her version is intended to symbolize the hope

for harmony between all living things on earth.

Chen is the eldest of four children whose parents fled Chinese civil

war in 1949. Born in Taiwan in 1959, she grew up in Kielung, near

the island’s northern shore, and began lessons in Chinese folk dance

at the age of four. She spent eight years training at the Chinese

Cultural College; she also studied Peking Opera movement and martial

arts. In 1982 she came to America for graduate study at New York

University

where she earned her master’s degree in dance.

From hearing stories of China’s wars from her grandparents, Chen says,

she learned "that life is precious and one must live every moment

to the fullest with gratefulness and compassion." These ideas

have influenced her art and life. In 1982, she married Andy Chiang,

a computer specialist who has worked as the dance company’s executive

director and been instrumental in its growth. The couple are the

parents

of a young daughter, Sylvia.

Among the program’s dances that are unique to Nai-Ni Chen’s hybrid

vision is her group work "Peach Flower Dance," inspired by

an ancient and (in China) widely-known poem, "Legend of the Peach

Blossom Spring."

The mythic poem describes a fisherman who gets lost on the river and

discovers a beautiful, unspoiled land. Here, amidst trees filled with

peach blossoms, he finds a people living together in perfect harmony.

Although they make him welcome, eventually the fisherman has to return

to his own world. But after he leaves, he can never find the place

again.

"This is a legend about an imaginary, ideal land which everyone

is yearning for," says Chen. "Every culture has a similar

story, that’s why I chose this topic, I feel this can be

universal."

The program’s featured modern work is Chen’s, "Unfolding,"

a work for seven dancers set to a commissioned score for Korean

percussion

instruments by Harry Lee. "Unfolding" uses partnering and

ensemble work that was inspired by the activation and blending of

the original energies, Yin and Yang, as described in the "I-Ching,

The Book of Changes," Chen explains. As her dancers work in pairs,

their complementary movements capture the essence of the

choreographer’s

experience in two cultures.

The program finale, "Festival," is designed to dazzle, with

blue silk flags symbolizing ocean waves, the setting of the beautiful

Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. The traditional festival is the setting

for dancers and racers make their way to victory.

Victory is an apt reference for this mom and pop company. In

little more than a decade, it has become one of the preeminent

professional Asian-American dance companies in the nation, performing

for audiences of 75,000 each year.

— Nicole Plett

Dragon’s Tale, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Two performances. $12 & $14. Sunday,

March 2, 1 and 4 p.m. Student matinee ($5) Monday, March 3,

10 a.m.


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