Welcoming the Year of the Ox with Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company

February 11-13, 2021

David Mead

With the coronavirus pandemic making live performances out of the question, the Fort Lee, New Jersey-based Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company (陳乃霓舞團) ushered in the Lunar (Chinese) New Year of the Ox digitally, with three days of family-friendly dance and music online. The three-times daily livestreamed shows were full of variety, the short dances variously delivering grace, precision, and athleticism, often all in the same piece.

Now celebrating 33 years of dance making, the Asian American focused company is something of a rarity, Chen’s choreographic style drawing on the Chinese cultural traditions that she studied from an early age in Taiwan, ballet at Taipei’s Chinese Cultural University, and the modern dance she found after moving to New York in the early 1980s. The result is uniquely Chinese American That fusion was very apparent in the spirit of the everything seen, and indeed in her diverse company, which draws dancers from across the cultural spectrum.

Double Lion Dance from Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company's New Year of the Golden Ox celebrationPhoto Andy Chiang
Double Lion Dance
from Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company’s New Year of the Golden Ox celebration
Photo Andy Chiang

Chen’s Double Lion Dance made for a fun opener to each show. Two dancers playfully lead the beasts, who symbolise power, wisdom, and superiority. The jovial animals were remarkably expressive. The coordination between the two dancers making up each lion, and between each pair, was impressively.

Dragons are believed to bring good luck, and those fortunate enough to see one at Chinese New Year are ensured prosperity and good fortune in the coming year. Chen’s Dragon Dance that concluded each show is a celebratory kaleidoscope of colour. Women in pinks, blues and yellows paint pictures with fans, umbrellas and ribbons, while the men dance strongly with flags. The dragon is actually seen relatively little, putting in a brief appearance mid-piece, before serpentining round and diving up and down in the vibrant finale as though it is riding air currents.

Peacocks Dance Under the Moonlight, arranged by Nai-Ni Chen and Min ZhouPhoto Vandy Photography
Peacocks Dance Under the Moonlight,
arranged by Nai-Ni Chen and Min Zhou
Photo Vandy Photography

In contrast, Peacocks Dance Under the Moonlight is a more graceful affair. A dance of the Dai people of Yunan, arranged by Chen and Min Zhou, three women in white dresses adorned with peacock eyes move elegantly. Arms and very detailed fingers and hands do much talking as the movement references the birds real-life actions.

Gu Ze Yungge is an energetic Harvest Dance of the Han people of Northeast China. An opening solo by Guixhuan Zhuang (man) is angular and as strong and percussive as the repetitive drum beat of the accompanying folk music. Min Zhou is softer, dancing with green and pink fans, before the pair come together for the finale.

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in Mountain Rain in the Tea GardenPhoto Anthony ALverrez
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in Mountain Rain in the Tea Garden
Photo Anthony Alverrez

Of all the more traditional dances, Chen’s Mountain Rain in the Tea Garden struck the greatest chord personally, probably due in part to the familiar and well-known Taiwanese folk tune. As they weave in and out of each other, five women dance with beautiful flower-patterned pink umbrellas as they play cheerfully in a shower. The happy, and very innocent feeling is most appealing.

Coin stick dances are traditionally done by street performers who drill holes in bamboo sticks, then fill them with coins so that they make sound when twirled or hit against the body or floor. Of the two shown, I particularly enjoyed the bright upbeat dance that originated from the Bai people of Yunan in Southwest China, danced to a folk tune played by the Melody of Dragon Music Ensemble. The unison work from the group of five dancers was exceptionally good.

Chen likes to include a couple of her modern works in her New Year programmes. “Culture is evolving. It is so important to preserve tradition but we must create new,” she said in one of the post-performance talks.

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in Ten Miles A DayPhoto Anthony Alverrez
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in Ten Miles A Day
Photo Anthony Alverrez

Her modern dance influences shone through in Ten Miles A Day, a dance inspired by the achievements of the too often forgotten Chinese immigrant construction workers who provided much of the labour in the building of the America’s transcontinental railway (in the western section, they constituted 90 percent of the workforce). The title refers to their breaking the construction record by laying ten miles of track in one day in Promontory, Utah in 1869.

Rather than the focusing on the hardships they endured, the dance for five men is a celebration of their community of purpose, strength and resilience. Much use is made of the around 3-metre bamboo poles each performs with. They are pushed, leapt over, used to vault and to build ‘frames’ that echo trestle bridges and other constructions. It’s all pushed along by a superb percussive score by Glen Velez in which I’ll swear you can hear the sound of hammer on metal.

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in WhirlwindPhoto Anthony Alverez
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in Whirlwind
Photo Anthony Alverez

Even better is Chen’s Whirlwind. It was inspired by a journey along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route through Central Asia that was a conduit for ideas as well as merchandise. That location is felt in the choreography, a contemporary fusion of movement and sounds from along the road, and in Jayanthi Moorthy’s attractive backdrops, stylised abstractions of night-time and daytime skies, that suggest vast space.

The piece demands to be watched. An opening group of four men dance powerfully. Frequently splitting into two pairs, the excellent partnering features many lifts and supports. Four women initially add a moment of grace before sharper arms and unexpected turns explode to the sound of Kathak padhant (recitation) in Valdez’s again super accompaniment. The ensemble finale that has a main group constantly in flux as dancers join and leave, is thrilling, full of life and energy: a whirlwind indeed.

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in WhirlwindPhoto Jaqi Medlock
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in Whirlwind
Photo Jaqi Medlock

A breather from the dance came with various musical interludes. Carrie Jin drew some amazing harmonies as she played Golden Phoenix on a sheng (笙), a Chinese mouth-blown free reed instrument consisting of vertical pipes that I could help thinking bears some resemblance to a miniature church organ.

Elsewhere, Yueqin Chen played Drum Beat for the Flying Dragon on the ruan, a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument, while Yan YiChuan produced some remarkably fast bowing on the jinghu (a high-pitched two-string violin) in Welcoming the Spring, backed by the Zenxhing Opera Society. More unusual was a moment of Chinese bamboo rap by XingYe Ma, who spoke rhythmically while accompanying the words with a pair of bamboo claps.

Acrobatics provided the ‘how on earth does she do that?’ moment as Lina Liu used her incredibly dexterous feet to balance, spin, flip and catch lightweight umbrellas in her Dream of Peacocks. And if one wasn’t enough, she finished by balancing five at once. You started to think there must be some sort of invisible connection to stop them escaping.

The programmes also offered selections from Kunqu Opera in the shape of the ‘Stealing of the Magical Herb’ from The Legend of the White Serpent and ‘The Exodus of Wang Zhaojun’ from Lady Zhaojun.

新年快樂Happy New Year!