Choreographer and dancer Nai-Ni Chen died on Dec. 12 at the age of 62, while swimming off the beach in Honolulu. Bridging centuries-old Chinese traditions and contemporary art, Chen was a brilliant performer and a humanitarian whose sophisticated theater works often involved collaborations with contemporary musicians. Her Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company is based in Fort Lee, and she was a principal affiliate artist of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
Chen began studying folk dance at the age of 4 in her native Keelung, Taiwan. Her family moved to Taipei when she was 12, and the following year she enrolled at Taiwan’s prestigious Chinese Culture College (now Chinese Culture University), where her eight years of study culminated in a bachelor’s degree. The broad program at the college included not only traditional Chinese dance but also exposure to Western ballet, modern dance, tap and jazz dance. In addition, the students learned to play piano and a variety of Chinese musical instruments and had classes in voice, music theory and stage design.
Chen’s teachers in Taipei included Liang Shou Juan, a specialist in the Beijing Opera’s female roles, who emphasized bodily harmony and expression and taught her pupils to dance “from the inside out.” Chen also studied with the formidable Beijing Opera performer Wong Shao Ting, who had become crippled after falling from a height. Wong was a taskmaster who chastised his opera pupils with a whip, but at Chinese Culture College he was not allowed to whip the dance students. Many of them still avoided his classes, but Chen became a devotee, studying with him both during regular hours and after school.
One of Chen’s modern dance teachers, Lin Hwai-Min, also directed his own company, the Cloud Gate Dance Theater. When Chen was 16, Lin invited her to join the fledgling troupe. From then on, long days at school segued into rehearsals that lasted until midnight. Lin also insisted that his dancers broaden their education by studying literature and calligraphy, by attending concerts, and by learning about the visual arts. Chen left the company after three years, when it began to tour abroad, because she needed to complete her degree.
Apart from her formal studies, Chen credited her upbringing in Taiwan with nurturing her sense of empathy and awakening her sensitivity to human suffering. As a child, she often spent time in the company of her grandmother, who told her stories about the Japanese invasion of China and the Chinese Civil War. These stories made a deep impression on her. For all her mastery of dance technique and design, her mature choreographic works were subtly imagistic, spiritual and imbued with a depth of human feeling.
In later years, Chen’s study of folk dance and traditional art forms informed her modern choreography, giving her a particularly Chinese perspective on the flow of energy through the body and teaching her to regulate her breathing. It also informed her innovative work with props and fabrics. Rediscovering her heritage, she created dances inspired by the art of calligraphy, being especially drawn to the passionate and flowing style known as “wild cursive.”
Chen first visited the United States in 1977 as a student ambassador with the Youth Goodwill Mission. She returned the following year as a professional dancer who performed on Broadway with the Chinese Performing Arts Company. It was on the first of these visits that Chen met her future husband, Andy Chiang. She settled permanently in the United States in 1982, studied composition with Doris Rudko at New York University, and received a master’s degree from NYU in 1986.
Chen first gained positive attention for her work after an engagement at the Third World International Arts Festival, at La MaMa ETC in New York, in 1986. She founded her own company in 1988 and over the years has presented her dances at some of New York’s most prominent venues for contemporary choreography, including The Joyce Theater, The Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, Dance Theater Workshop and the Whitney Museum. The company began touring in the 1990s. Some notable international engagements included the First China International Dance Festival in 2002; a tour of Eastern Europe sponsored by the U.S. State Department in 2005; and a three-week tour of Mexico in 2006.
Chen choreographed more than 70 dances during her career and was awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She also received support from numerous foundations. By 2019, she and her husband, who is the troupe’s executive director, had built a thriving institution with an annual budget of $420,000, offering eight dancers (not including guest artists) a 36-week contract. The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company now divides its time between its home state and New York, giving regular performances on both sides of the Hudson River, with regular forays into Pennsylvania.
In addition to showcasing Chen’s contemporary repertoire, the troupe has become known for its annual Chinese New Year celebrations, spectacles that delight audiences with a menu of traditional items. The playful “Lion Dance” and the snaking “Dragon Dance” return each year, but Chen would vary the program with a blend of live music, acrobatic excerpts from Beijing and Kunqu Opera, and an ever-changing repertoire of folk dances representing China’s ethnic minorities. She also would include at least one contemporary piece on the programs, which was her way of introducing audiences to modern dance, simultaneously challenging and seducing her viewers.
In addition to their broad appeal, these Chinese New Year programs gave Chen the opportunity to showcase her dazzling technique in traditional female roles. She displayed outstanding clarity and expressive piquancy in solos that she choreographed for herself, including “Dance of the Heavenly Flower Maiden” (1991). In this reinterpretation of a classic opera number, Chen portrayed a flying apsara come to scatter flowers over the earth to rid it of plague. Another dance for which she won renown was “Passage to the Silk River” (2000), her sharply etched form and light, precisely measured steps contrasting with the rippling and streaming movements of her costume’s long, silken sleeves. Occasionally she juxtaposed these delicate works with pared-down modern creations like the feral male solo “Instinct” (2003).
Chen regarded her piece “Calligraphy I” (1993) as an artistic turning point. It marked an exploration of her cultural heritage and the beginning of a series of dances that would culminate in the evening-length spectacle “Dragons on the Wall (Tianji),” presented at NJPAC in 2001. In the “Calligraphy” series, she became concerned with balancing movement and stillness, with silence, and with defining positive and negative space. Despite their theatricality, these works made a virtue of understatement; they depict guarded relationships and recall the oblique use of metaphor in Chinese poetry. “Calligraphy II” (1995) represented Chen’s first creative collaboration with composer Joan La Barbara. Thereafter, Chen frequently commissioned scores from avant-garde musicians.
Even more relevant today than when Chen choreographed it, “Dragons on the Wall (Tianji),” which debuted at NJPAC in 2001, was a breakthrough piece, an evening-length dance alluding to censorship, imprisonment, spying and lack of privacy. Chen decided to address the quest for personal freedom after making the acquaintance of dissident poet Bei Dao, who had been exiled from China following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. At the time, it was easy to think of despotism as a Chinese problem, but since the premiere of “Dragons on the Wall,” tyrannical social controls have proliferated globally. Now the work appears prophetic, and the struggle of her anonymous characters has become our own.
“Dragons on the Wall” did not only concern itself with politics, however. In this ambitious work, which the choreographer took three years to create, she also investigated our animal natures and questioned the culture of materialism that she felt was corrupting both Western and Chinese society. Within a graphic environment created by set designer Chen Shen, the characters in “Dragons” fulfill their human destiny by searching for light and freedom. As in Chen’s other dances inspired by calligraphy, achieving balance is key to the characters’ success. Reviewing the premiere, this writer commented, “Because the dancing comes from a deep, interior place, viewers can connect with it on the level of basic instinct. It is both understated and sensational; primal and sophisticated.”
While Chen’s contemporary works were often bold, they were not always somber. The popular “Bamboo Prayer” (1998) addressed themes of hardship and endurance within a framework of formal beauty. Chen’s works could be beguiling, as in “On the River of Dreams” (1998), another bamboo-themed piece that depicts a mysterious journey by water. She waxed romantic in “Neptune’s Dialogue” (1993), her first work to explore partnering. And she became downright playful in “Carousel Divertimenti” (2000), set to music by Dizzy Gillespie; and in “Raindrops” (2003), which she created to remind herself of her puddle-jumping childhood in Keelung (known as the “Rainy City”).
Frequently a single work would not exhaust her curiosity or her ideas, and so Chen proceeded to choreograph a series of dances on a chosen theme. Following the calligraphy cycle, she created the “American Landscape” series beginning with “Landscape Over Zero” (2005), again with music by Joan La Barbara. In this dance about renewal, prehistoric humans appear to migrate across frozen ice floes. The stylized “Isle of Dunes” (2006) followed, moving the action to a parched desert scene informed by Chen’s travels in the American Southwest.
“The Way of Five” was a series of dances inspired by the wuxing (the Five Phases of Chinese philosophy), with commissioned music by Gerald Chenoweth. “Fire” appeared in 2007 and “Water” in 2008, followed by “Earth” in 2010.
Chen became enchanted by legends of the Silk Road, visiting China’s Xinjiang Province to view the landscape and meet the people. This investigation began with her piece “Mirage” (2009), which drew on the dance traditions of the Uighurs and featured a commissioned score by Glen Velez. “Mirage” then led to the “Whirlwind” series (2012-2013), a mystic cycle intended to manifest the Great Breath, the divine energy of the universe.
Among many other works that drew on Asian cultural traditions was Chen’s “Unbroken Thread,” (2003), which began as an experiment in knot-tying and grew to encompass Chinese funeral rites and ideas about reincarnation. Jason Hwang composed the score for “Unbroken Thread,” while Myung Hee Cho designed the striking, interactive set made of knotted ropes. For “Not Alone” (2014), Chen choreographed a shadowy, interior landscape inspired by the Eighth Century poetry of Li Bai, and composer Chen Yi filled the space with strolling saxophonists.
In 2011, Chen’s penchant for musical experimentation led to the creation of “Temptation of the Muses,” a collaboration with the Ahn Trio, with the instrumentalists gamely joining in the action onstage. Among other pieces, this program featured the premiere of “Concrete Stream,” a dance of darkling symbolism with a commissioned score by Kenji Bunch.
Chen preferred contemporary music, yet she also choreographed for local opera companies and this experience led her to create “The Three Riddles of Turandot,” a dance redaction of Puccini’s opera, for New Jersey Ballet in 2009.
In the last year, Chen fought courageously to overcome the restrictions placed upon her by government lockdowns. She found ways to continue teaching and choreographing for her company, holding her community together; this spring, she recorded a program of new and recent works at the South Orange Performing Arts Center. These latest works included the provocative duet “Truth Bound” (2018), about the search for truth in a world papered over with propaganda; and “Luminescence” (2020), in which the dancers were mysterious creatures floating in an undersea world. Yet another new dance this year was “Shadow Force,” a virtuosic ensemble piece set to a score by Max Richter. “Shadow Force,” also performed at the Dance on the Lawn Festival in Montclair in September, showcased her dancers’ strength and polish while addressing the social atomization of life during the pandemic.
In addition to Chen’s husband, survivors include their daughter, Sylvia; Chen’s mother, May Yun Wu; her brother, Dr. Kai Lieh Chen; and her sisters, Dr. Yuni Chen and Dr. Sanni Chen.
Chen’s dancers will share memories of her on Zoom, Dec. 26 at 7 p.m. To RSVP, email Teri Miller Buschman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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