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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
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
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
It features colorful costumes, fantastic props, and ingenious
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
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
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
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
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
"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
The program’s featured modern work is Chen’s, "Unfolding,"
a work for seven dancers set to a commissioned score for Korean
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
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
New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Two performances. $12 & $14. Sunday,
March 2, 1 and 4 p.m. Student matinee ($5) Monday, March 3,
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