An animal act always opens Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company’s Chinese New Year celebration at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Two shaggy lion puppets with green top-knots on their heads are the stars of “Double Lions Welcoming Spring,” and you have to feel a little sorry for the pair of acrobats whose job it is to tame them: While they knock themselves out flipping and spinning, it’s hard for them to steal the spotlight from these not-so-fearsome beasts. All the lions have to do is bat their eyelashes or stretch out to nibble their toes, and they own the stage.
Watching these frolicsome characters is not only fun, but also brings good luck. So the audience at NJPAC, on Saturday, was doubly blessed.
This year Chen’s company inaugurated the Year of the Sheep, and in addition to the lions and the golden-scaled dragon who are her regular visitors, the choreographer also hosted some special guests from the Beijing Dance Academy. “No Boundaries,” a modern piece choreographed by committee, featured Zhung Tian as a black-clad hero whose fierce posturing kept him independent of a close-knit group. Though their comings and goings were fluid, one man had his head pushed down and the group’s attachment felt confining, not supportive. When two dancers seized and lifted Tian, however, he shook himself free and the ensemble scattered.
Other special guests were the jocular Xing Ye Ma, an exponent of “Bamboo Rap” who improvised tongue-twisters on the spot while accompanying himself with bamboo clackers; and Yuequin Chen, an elegant musician who drew twanging melodies from the Chinese lute known as the Ruan. The Nai-Ni Chen Youth Program Dancers were also on hand, taking a larger role in this year’s performance as youngsters of different ages multiplied the spiky attitudes of the “Peacock Dance,” and whirled through “Why Are the Flowers So Red?,” a circular dance from Xinjiang.
The folk material on these programs can be pure eye candy — banners rippling exuberantly and colored ribbons weaving through the air — or it can display intriguing particularities. In the harvest dance called “Gu Ze Yung Ge,” the man, Guixhuan Zhuang, adopted a sturdy posture, half-seated with feet planted wide apart, his body swaying from side-to-side. His sprightly companion, Min Zhou, manipulated a fluttering fan. When folk dances like these are shown alongside Chen’s contemporary works, viewers can observe how elements like the rhythm of a shuffling walk or hands poised delicately in opposition can become the building blocks of a new repertoire.
Saturday’s program reprised Chen’s “Peach Flower Landscape,” with alluring women in diaphanous robes drifting to the sound of a bamboo flute; and the more aggressive “Whirlwind,” a dance that balances images of struggle and contemplation.