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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the June 13, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Nai-Ni Chen: Working With Nature’s Energy

Artworks big and small, created of natural and

man-made materials, some motionless and some susceptible to the

movement of wind and breezes, rub elbows with natural grasses,

flowers, shrubs, and trees at Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton’s

22-acre sculpture park. This auspicious outdoor setting provides the

stage for the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company’s performance on Saturday,

June 16, at 4:30 p.m.

The program features Chen’s, "Unfolding," a work for seven

dancers designed to be performed outdoors, and set to a commissioned

score for Korean percussion instruments by Harry Lee. Dancing the

program are company members Greg Meyer, Chien-Hui Shen, Theresa Ling,

Claire Benton, Ya-Chih Chuang, Ha Yan Kim, and Gabriel Hernan.

"Neptune’s Dialogue," an adagio work for three couples

choreographed

in 1993, is also on the program. So is a new quartet, a work in

progress

that is as yet untitled. "The first time I went to see the Grounds

for Sculpture I was inspired to come back to the studio and start

a new piece," says Nai-Ni Chen. "It won’t be finished by June

16th, but I want to show it." Also featured is choreographer and

artistic director Nai-Ni Chen performing her solo, "Passage to

the Silk River."

In traditional China, the world was experienced as the movement of

energy, from the all-powerful energy of the earth’s rotation and the

pounding energies of the tides to the less visible energy that resides

in plants and trees — even in rocks. New Jersey choreographer

Nai-Ni Chen, who grew up in a traditional Chinese setting, says this

sense of the movement of energy, coupled with the search for the

balance

of forces — the Yin and Yang — fuels her work

"Unfolding."

Commissioned by Dancing in the Streets of New York City,

"Unfolding"

was designed to be performed in an outdoor setting and premiered last

summer at Wave Hill in New York. With a few refinements and small

changes, the same work will be shown at Grounds for Sculpture. (In

case of rain, the performance will be postponed to Saturday, June

23.)

"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," says Chen

in an interview from her home in Fort Lee. The "I Ching" is

the world’s oldest oracle, an ancient and revered Chinese book. Its

earliest written form dates back some 3,000 years, but it derives

from far more ancient traditions that pre-date writing. It offers

a form of divination and a way of approaching and experiencing the

world in terms of the movement of energy which is called Chi.

Chen says the title of her work refers to these traditional notions

of Chi. "It is intended to express the idea of the positive energy

in the universe and how it gets evolved," she says. "How the

ocean is pounding constantly and how the earth is rotating all the

time — the whole earth is evolving all the time. In the Eastern

concept, even the rock has life — not plastic or man-made things

— but anything organic. The process of unfolding can apply to

anything in the universe."

Chen says that here in the United States, her adopted

home, Native American peoples approach nature with a comparable sense

of reverence and ritual. She has also seen, over the course of her

20 years as an artist here, how the thinking in Western culture has

changed and that the quest for fusion between East and West is no

longer uncommon.

The score for "Unfolding" by Harry Lee is a contemporary

composition

derived from traditional Korean chang-go music. The chang-go is a

two-sided drum. It is played with both hands, each holding a bamboo

stick — one is thick and the other is a slender root. "Lee

uses traditional material in a contemporary way," Chen notes.

The score, originally performed live, but heard here in a recording,

utilizes three chang-go drums, one bell drum, a metal gong, and voice.

Choreographing for outdoor performance presents particular challenges.

Chen describes how she began working on "Unfolding" indoors,

but soon realized she needed to rehearse on the site. "We went

to Wave Hill a lot. There were some movements that we tried inside,

but found that they could not work outdoors. The site was really big

and the dancers must cover a lot of space. The site at Grounds for

Sculpture is even larger," she says.

"Outdoors, the experience is not so concentrated for the

audience,"

she adds. "Indoors you are in a theater with theatrical lighting

and no distractions. Outdoors it’s not like that at all. So I worked

outdoors to plan the group forms, the in and out flow of it."

Balanced against the challenges of staging a dance in a park are the

site’s virtues. "Grounds for Sculpture is very beautiful and the

sculptures that are in place there resemble a stage set," she

says. Her choice of performance site is not yet fixed, and she would

like to move the audience from site to site for each of the four works

on the program. Constraints of her amplified sound system, however,

probably won’t permit this. Her preferred performance space is near

Isaac Witkin’s big stone sculpture, "Garden State." "There

the audience can view the dance from the west, without the afternoon

sun in their eyes," she says.

Costumes for "Unfolding" are by Karen Young, Chen’s principal

designer and collaborator for many years. Young often works with

delicate

layered garments based on traditional Chinese dress. "A dance

costume needs to enhance, not block the movement," says Chen,

"and the dancer needs to be able to move in the costume."

Young watched an outdoor rehearsal of the piece as she developed her

design, taking the outdoor colors into consideration, and eventually

choosing a palette of dark blue, rose, and gold.

Chen comes from a rich tradition of dance. The first born of four

children, her parents moved from China to Taiwan in 1949, fleeing

the turmoil of the Chinese civil war, and adapting to the life of

immigrants. Born in Taiwan in 1959, Chen grew up in Kielung, near

the northern shore, and started Chinese folk dance lessons at the

age of four. From hearing stories of China’s wars from her

grandparents,

she 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 as a dancer, choreographer, and as

an immigrant to the United States.

Chen spent eight years training in dance and music at

the Chinese Cultural College. She also studied Peking Opera martial

art and dramatic movement with master teacher Wong Shao-Ting and Liang

Shu-Chuan. She taught and choreographed folk dance, and when she was

just 16 years old, her dance for 300 secondary school students won

the silver medal in the National Folk Dance Competition.

In the late 1970s, Chen was chosen by the government’s Ministry of

Culture to perform traditional Chinese dances with several

professional

touring groups. At age 16, she began her modern dance career by

working

with the Cloud Gate Dance Theater, the first professional modern dance

company in Taiwan. Here, she says, she experienced the dedication

and discipline required for a professional modern dancer.

In 1982, Chen came to the U.S. for graduate study in dance. That year

she also married Andy Chiang, who now directs his own business,

Transcendental

Logic, specializing in computer security. Chiang also works as the

dance company’s executive director. They are the parents of a

six-year-old

daughter, Sylvia. Chen earned her master’s degree at New York

University

where she studied with Doris Rudko, Bertram Ross, and Mary Anthony,

as well as with New York choreographers H.T. Chen, Yuriko, and others.

Since she formed her first company in 1988, Chen has worked steadily

with different aspects of Asian art and aesthetics, both traditional

and contemporary. Her work has been a process of integrating her

experience

of different idioms of dance and developing a style that is an true

integration of Eastern and Western influences. Her distinctive vision

of combining the essence of Chinese aesthetics, encompassing concepts

of concentration, flow, and spirit, with elements of modern art has

created a repertoire that ranges from solos to groups of eight

dancers.

Her themes are drawn from the movements of traditional legend and

rituals, to works inspired by the highly abstract art of contemporary

Chinese calligraphy. Her company has been presented at art centers

in 35 states and she has taught master classes in colleges and

universities

here and in Taiwan.

Chen’s major works include "Peach Flower Landscape," "Qian

Kun," and "White Mountain, Black Water," a collaborative

work with Korean percussionist Woo Suk Lee. Earlier this year she

premiered her largest work to date, "Dragons on the Wall,"

at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, a work created in

collaboration

with Nobel Prize nominee Bei Dao and the avant-garde composer Joan

La Barbara. The piece was cited as deserving of "high praise"

by critic Robert Johnson of the Star-Ledger. "Chen’s imagery can

be violent, or beautiful, or both at the same time," he writes.

"Chen paints life in a fluid stream that emphasizes timeless

continuity."

Over the past decade, as she has received increasing recognition in

her field, Chen has gained confidence in her work’s direction.

"Rarely

do I do a dance just for fun and excitement," she says. "What

inspires me most tends to be a little more serious. My style and my

intention is to go deeper into the subject. This may not be the trend,

but I don’t follow the trend, I follow my heart."

Chen’s dancers are always crucial in helping her realize her artistic

vision, but "Unfolding" makes demands that go beyond the

ordinary.

"Each step they take has to be done in the proper way, even the

way they walk into the performing space, " says Chen. "They

have to feel they’re in connection with the whole universe. And they

have to be able to transfer this feeling to the audience."

She says "Unfolding" stays with one subject and evolves

gradually.

"Some people may become mesmerized by the slow motion in the

beginning

of the dance, others may be looking for flashy action and more

excitement.

But if you let your mind evolve with the dance, gradually the energy

builds, and the end will become very exciting."

This is one choreographer who doesn’t settle for flashy or easy

impressions,

but wants her work to affect the viewer deeply. "The audience

will keep the dance in their heart," she says. "For a long

time they’ll still remember it."

— Nicole Plett

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, Grounds for Sculpture ,

18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, 609-689-1089. "Unfolding" on

a program with three other works. (Raindate is Saturday, June 23.)

$20. Saturday, June 16, 4:30 p.m.


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