Two cultures, one identity: Choreographer Nai-Ni Chen fully embraces her Taiwanese heritage and adopted American identity, and seamlessly blends those cultures in her life’s work, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company. And performances by Chen’s diverse company of dancers encompass both the dynamic range of American modern movement and the traditionally concise elements of Chinese dance.
After a full day of directing and rehearsing, the 59-year-old Chen overflows with stories about her company and background.
“I’m still learning things every day,” she says. “That’s a huge part of my experience, and it shows up in my choreography. As an artist, you’re affected by what you see happening in your world and all around you. If I were born in the U.S., I think my work might be different, but really everyone here” — in New York and on the East Coast — “we really are multicultural, from all of these different backgrounds.”
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company brings A Quest for Freedom and its compelling cross-cultural expressions to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Nov. 16.
Featuring eight Nai-Ni Chen dancers, the work interprets the immigrant’s journey from the known to the unknown, inviting viewers to shift their perspective within the narrative. Chen says “If we look at freedom from a larger picture, it could mean many different things. Not just freedom from political silence — it could mean your own escape, freedom from your own obstacles. We can look at the same thing from many different perspectives. Even if you’re in a country that’s ‘free,’ the individual could be stuck, so there is this human desire to try to be free of spirit. That alone is a quest for freedom. It can be very personal.”
In Taiwan, Chen began her dance training as a child and became an early member of the renowned Cloud Gate Dance Theater as a teenager. She moved to America in 1982 to study contemporary dance and hone her choreography skills at New York University. While Cloud Gate Dance Theater provided a solid dance and movement foundation, Chen says that her studies in New York with Doris Rudko were key to opening her up to choreographing. They also taught her how to integrate movement with music. She founded the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in 1988.
“As an immigrant, I was carrying so much; I had so much to say. The only way I could express it all was through my own choreography, my own style. So I had to start a company with dancers who are committed to the same vision.”
Chen sees movement differently than dancers trained in one style.
“We use a lot of Martha Graham’s spiral; it’s very earthy. Breath, the power of the center, and spiral: Those are key elements that people can find in my choreography, and they link Graham’s techniques to the circular movements and sensitivity of the Asian dance elements,” she says. “I think that coming from a background like traditional Chinese dance taught me about sensitivity, and to watch for details in movement. Circular movements in Asian dance are more indirect, where another choreographer with different training might be more direct in their movement language.”
Her style of movement is uniquely communicative. By breaking out of expected molds and crossing lines between traditional and contemporary styles, she creates unexpected, physically expressive storytelling. Chen says, “I arrange the stage to toss energy from one dancer to another, almost like how energy of the ink flows in a Chinese painting … in my choreography you can picture that. I like to arrange everyone onstage according to a certain set of sensitivities to the space. Then the dancers start to move and affect each other, so you can see the subtle flow and balance of energy between them.”
Chen has collaborated with the Ahn Trio for live musical accompaniment. Born in Korea and educated at Juilliard, the three Ahn sisters are also a cultural blending of sorts, using a combination of modern-classical scores and contemporary songs arranged for their instruments. Chen has also invited a Russian costume designer, a visual-art designer from India, and a lighting designer from Taiwan. They all are women, and have collaborated with Chen for years.
“I love what I do, and I can transfer that energy, drive, and passion to my dancers. Then they feel the same, and we have the same mission,” she says. “There is a common ground between modern dance and freedom of interpretation: Each audience member can take away a different story. They might see some of themselves in what happens onstage. You need a wide lens and bigger perspective to look at it. What I’m trying to say is universal, about humans yearning for freedom.” ◀
▼ A Quest for Freedom
▼ Nai-Ni Chen and the Ahn Trio
▼ 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ Tickets are $49-$75; 505-988-1234, lensic.org