Nai-Ni Chen is more than a choreographer. She is also a beautiful dancer, as she demonstrated again on Saturday when her Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company presented its Lunar New Year celebration, “The Year of the Monkey,” at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
As the graceful soloist in “Mirage,” a contemporary composition inspired by the land and people of Xinjiang, in Northwest China, Chen managed to steal her own show. Chen makes her entrance veiled, but while the gauzy fabric adds an atmosphere of mystery, she seems to use it less than she did in 2009, when “Mirage” was new. What stands out now is the dancer’s masterful technique — particularly the wonderful definition of her arms, with hands flicking to accent the sinuous movement. She is also deeply musical, drawing viewers into a spin with her as she turns with precise steps. The ensemble members attack their parts with flaming energy, especially Yusaku Komori; and it’s easy to become caught up in the vibrant choreography set to music by Glen Velez. Yet Chen’s exactitude and inspiration take “Mirage” to another level.
The same could be said of Gu Feng, the guest artist who starred as the Monkey King in “Havoc in the Heavenly Palace,” an excerpt from traditional Kunqu Opera that concluded the program. Curled up with a monkey’s rounded posture or splaying his body in acrobatic leaps, Gu revealed a wonderful agility as he submerged himself in his role.
In this scene, the Monkey King has arrived at the palace of the Jade Emperor, in heaven. The Monkey King looks forward to hobnobbing with the gods at a banquet, but finding himself disinvited he takes revenge by feasting on the peaches of immortality and quaffing the Emperor’s wine. Observing the mischievous expression on Gu’s face as he nibbles the peaches and guzzles from the wine pot is as delightful as watching him twirl his staff, effortlessly fending off attacks from the Emperor’s retainers and the Commander of the Celestial Warriors. The havoc promised in the title quickly ensues as furious martial artists, apsaras waving streamers and the snaking New Year Dragon all crowd onto the stage. None of this commotion bothers the Monkey King in the least. He remains unflappable and unharmed, popping out gleefully in the final tableau.
Saturday’s performance also featured students in the Nai-Ni Chen Youth Program, the littlest ones fluttering their hands as they portrayed “Fish in a Small Brook,” the older ones fanning out from a line and tapping on small boxes in the “Yi Ethnic Dance.” The Chinese Music Ensemble of New York provided live accompaniment for the “Mongolian Chopstick Dance,” a percussive work that Chen’s professional company danced boisterously. The musicians had their own showcase, too, with Yangzhou Gan, the soloist, playing racing melodies on the hammered dulcimer. Joined by musicians on traditional string and wind instruments, she also led the ensemble in performing tunes that were joyful and melancholy by turns.
Chen also revived “Movable Figures” (1991), a contemporary piece with a metallic sheen set to music by Anestis Logothetis. Here the choreographer departs from her usually fluid and rebounding style to create a dance inspired by the stiff and isolated movements of shadow puppets. Profiles dominate, although the choreographer may also acknowledge the stage’s depth by arranging figures on a diagonal. Tugging back and forth is to be expected, but Chen also includes surprising moments when dancers vault over one another or duck below. Breaking up parallels are moments when dancers cross and intersect in complex figures. “Movable Figures” possesses a striking clarity and a purposefulness that recall Chen’s own dancing.
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company will perform again at noon and 3 p.m. Feb. 21 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Free with museum admission; visit amnh.org.