Nai Ni Chen
MA '85, Dance Education
Dancing Across Cultures
Leaving New York City is not the usual path ambitious dancers take to jump-start their creative careers. But then again, Nai Ni Chen has hardly traveled a traditional route to success. By the time she came to the United States in 1982 to pursue a master in education (with a major in dance) she was already known in her native Taiwan for her striking and theoretical approach to dance. But after school, she found that the roles she was auditioning for in the highly competitive New York modern dance world left her creatively unfulfilled. “I had learned a lot of Chinese traditional dance and values, and that part of me needed to come out,” Chen recalls. “I had to create my own dance style.” So she moved away from the scene, “just a little, to Fort Lee, New Jersey,” she says where it was quiet: “It was a meditation stage. I could start my company. I could go back to my roots.”
Fifteen years later, the Nai Ni Chen Dance Company is a thriving group of nine full-time and three part-time dancers, with staff and offices in New York City. The company’s annual calendar is filled with 40 weeks of performance dates and educational programs from across the river in New Jersey to international festivals in Korea and China. Further expansion is planned. “Our goal as performers is to get our message out,” explains Chen.
The company produces a sophisticated style of dance that the Village Voice called “visual poetry” and The New York Times labeled “visually striking” and a “choreographic whirlpool.” According to Chen, her work uniquely reflects, “an American voice with an Asian background,” As for her eclectic influences, she adds, “American dance is very physical, very movement oriented, with lots of rhythm change. I work to incorporate that, but I also have a quietness, a power behind slow movement, and a power behind the stage settings that are in contrast to American choreography.”
Chen has brought together a diverse group of talented dancers from Korea, Japan, China, the United States and Argentina. “My goal was to provide an environment for a group of people to grow together, to challenge myself and challenge my dancers” says Chen. “I look for talented dancers, with performance qualities, who are very adaptable. They bring their own qualities to a new style, and we create something special.”
The resulting performance includes a mix of references and influences, from the Peking Opera to Martha Graham, while making use of traditional Chinese musical instruments, martial arts swordplay, Balinese gamelan music, and folk costumes from the Han Dynasty. But her range of motions and movement are not the result of a political agenda. Chen’s company has been successful because she has been successful in expressing herself. “Dance gives me joy. It is about life, it is what I am,” says Chen. “Cross-cultural dance is a natural result – not something I am trying to do.”
This article, written by Andrew Skola, appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of NYU Alumni Magazine.