An outburst of pure joy concluded the annual Lunar New Year celebration that the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company offered Jan. 21 at the Victoria Theater of NJPAC in Newark. At the first sight of the golden Dragon puppet curling swiftly around the stage, spirits soared. We had already been primed by the flash of bright ribbons and the ripple of an outsize flag, and by the antics of a goddess who emerged from a shell to sport daintily with a giant pearl. This “Dragon Festival” was nothing less than spectacular.
Joy is not a complicated emotion. Yet, as always, the Fort-Lee-based Nai-Ni Chen company offered more than razzmatazz in this program dubbed “Year of the Black Water Rabbit.” Nai-Ni Chen herself died in late 2021; notably, the show’s program included a revival of the choreographer’s “Movable Figures,” a masterfully constructed contemporary work. The event also featured a collaboration with hip-hop artists Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio and their Bronx-based company Full Circle Souljahs. Appearances by the FA Youth Dance Group and by Chinese pipa soloist Chen Fan rounded out the traditional portions of the program.
A hip-hop flavor was introduced from the outset, as dancer Emma Branson replaced the usual acrobats in the traditional Lion dance, reimagined as “Lion in the City.” Tempting the friendly Lion by offering him a lollipop, Branson proceeded to challenge him. Competing with a four-legged dancer isn’t easy, however, especially a Lion who can make a wave pass through his flexible body and “break” with his hind legs between his front paws. Evan Matthew Stewart and Esteban Santamaria were the two wise-guys hidden inside the Lion costume.
The other hip-hop number, “Dragon Cypher,” also featured a battle, this time between a group of Chinese martial artists and a breakdance crew. The former windmilled their arms, lunged and brandished bunches of chopsticks, while the latter showed off in lightning-fast solos either posing upside down with pretzeled legs (Rokafella) or head-spinning (Kwikstep). Also featuring the liquid moves of hip-hop dancer Erica Hines, this jointly choreographed exercise in good will concluded with the two clans integrated in a harmonious grouping.
The choreographic highlight of the afternoon, “Movable Figures” showed the company at its best. In a shadowy space, the dancers’ costumes glimmered with golden highlights and rich enamel tones, creating a mysterious atmosphere. In spite of the dim lighting, Chen achieved perfect clarity contrasting movements performed in profile with others in which the dancers’ flattened bodies faced front. Similarly, the choreography established a vivid contrast between frozen poses and loose, shaky gestures or bouncy, trotting steps, the static images appearing to break down.
“Movable Figures” was an interesting choice for a program that also featured breakdancing and “Tutting” profiles. Should we credit the company’s new director of contemporary dance, PeiJu Chien-Pott, or artistic director Greta Campo, for this imaginative selection?
The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company also boasts a director of traditional dance and preservation, Ying Shi, who drilled the FA Youth Dancers in “Songbird of Paradise” and the “Coinstick Dance.”
In the first of these acrobatic items, the children represented flying Apsaras descended from the celebrated murals of Dunhuang. In the second, they were members of the Bai Minority, tapping and twirling their bamboo coinsticks.
During intervals between the dancing, musician Chen Fan absorbed everyone’s attention, her fingers racing over the lute-like pipa in the contemporary piece, “New Music for Ancient Poetry,” or plucking individual strings to produce a calming spiritual resonance in “Three Lanes of Plum Blossoms.” Perseverance was the symbolic theme of the second of these pieces, a meditation on the value of far-sightedness in difficult times.
For more on the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, visit nainichen.org.
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