Corrections or additions?
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
in 1993, is also on the program. So is a new quartet, a work in
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
of forces — the Yin and Yang — fuels her work
Commissioned by Dancing in the Streets of New York City,
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
"Unfolding" uses partnering and ensemble work that was
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
The score for "Unfolding" by Harry Lee is a contemporary
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
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
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
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
touring groups. At age 16, she began her modern dance career by
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,
Logic, specializing in computer security. Chiang also works as the
dance company’s executive director. They are the parents of a
daughter, Sylvia. Chen earned her master’s degree at New York
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
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
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
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
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
Over the past decade, as she has received increasing recognition in
her field, Chen has gained confidence in her work’s direction.
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
"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
"Some people may become mesmerized by the slow motion in the
of the dance, others may be looking for flashy action and more
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
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
18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, 609-689-1089. "Unfolding" on
a program with three other works. (Raindate is Saturday, June 23.)
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.