Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company welcomes The Year of the Green Wood Dragon at NJPAC

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Sarah Botero of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company dances in “Lion in the City.”

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s annual Chinese New Year program is a spectacle filled with bright colors and even brighter hopes for prosperity and good health in the months to come. Amid the pageantry and boisterous folk dancing, however, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company always includes some contemporary works by its late founder, and the diversity of movement styles makes this celebration a treat for dance lovers as well as New Year enthusiasts.

Students of the FA Dance Academy in “Mongolian Joy.”

This year’s program, titled “The Year of the Green Wood Dragon” and performed on Feb. 10 at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater, featured ethnic dances from various regions of China, including the premiere of “Mongolian Festival,” by guest choreographer Lawrence Jin, plus the virtuosic solo “Spirit of the Peacock,” danced by Chinese peacock-dance specialist Aloe Ao Liu. In contrast with the finicky articulations of these traditional numbers were two full-bodied contemporary pieces by Chen, “Way of Five” and “Mirage,” both set to modern music rooted in traditional rhythms. Students from the FA Dance Academy and pipa master LiangXing Tang rounded out the offerings, which also included a hip-hop-flavored adaptation of the traditional Lion Dance; and the eagerly awaited New Year’s Dragon, whose sinuous, rollercoaster parade brought the celebration to a close.

A quartet of students introduced the Mongolian theme in a piece titled “Mongolian Joy,” their hands concealed in long blue sleeves that they twirled and flapped like kerchiefs. Marking the rhythm with their shoulders, the young dancers knelt and arched their bodies in a deep backbend. The choreographer developed these themes further in the high-energy “Mongolian Festival,” with complementary groupings of men and women. Here, however, the women’s hands were exposed, flicking and twisting at the wrists; and both elbows and shoulders caught the galloping rhythm. Rhythm was the essential feature of this dance, in which, toward the end, the dancers deployed rippling kerchiefs and bunches of chopsticks used as percussion instruments.

Aloe Ao Liu in “Spirit of the Peacock.”

The Peacock Dance derives from the Dai people of Yunnan Province, but it seems safe to say that the virtuosic “Spirit of the Peacock” solo — popularized in China by Li Ping Yang and performed at NJPAC by her disciple, Aloe Ao Liu — is at some remove from its origins in folk ritual. Performed in a diaphanous, white ballgown spotted with the “eyes” of the peacock feather, this glamorous, theatrical showpiece probably owes as much to the “Dying Swan” ballet as it does to folk traditions. In addition to the characteristic gesture of pinched and splayed fingers, the solo features rippling arm movements, the arms suddenly freezing in an angular pose. Moments when the dancer hides her head draw attention to the arms, giving the solo a mysterious, abstract quality. Liu has a wonderful physicality, and it would be interesting to see her perform in a more lyrical, less rigidly articulated style.

To experience the delight of free-flowing energy, however, one had to see the modern works by Nai-Ni Chen. A piece like “Way of Five” is clearly rooted in traditional dance — particularly the use of fans that snap open with a characteristic ripping sound — but Chen’s choreography also draws on the principles of Chinese martial arts and acrobatics, employed in an open-ended and creative way. An oblique, shadowy dance for Esteban Santamaria turned into a sparring match when he and Shota Sekiguchi discovered each other; but the essence of this dance is the luscious movement itself, flowing through the torso and allowing all five dancers to thrash, slide or strike out in any direction.

Chen’s “Mirage,” in contrast, is a dance of timeless migration. In the languid, opening scene, two couples and a trio advanced toward the audience, rising, sinking and appearing to float as they passed through slowly evolving combinations. Artistic director Greta Campo has taken over the solo that Chen choreographed for herself, one hand gracefully underlining her face, her gestures conjuring in the air as she subtly manipulated a long, aquamarine scarf. Then she, too, resumed her journey. Caleb Baker had another solo, light and elastic, before the ensemble returned for a finale spiked with bursts of energy. Glen Velez’s commissioned score added atmospheric vocals, and underpinned the choreography with a delicate, percussive tattoo. A beautiful conception!

“The Year of the Green Wood Dragon” would not be complete, of course, without an appearance by the guest of honor — the Dragon himself, frisking in a glitter of golden scales as he chased an enormous pearl trophy. With rippling flags, and streamers curling as they traced calligraphy in the air, the concluding Festival/Dragon Dance offered an abundance of visual stimulation that lifted everyone’s spirits, and sent us forth with confidence into the New Year.

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