A New Year Celebration–And Much More

Catch the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company perform in honor of Chinese New Year at NJPAC in Newark on February 6 and 7.

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company rings in the Chinese New Year with complex choreography and colorful costumes.
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company rings in the Chinese New Year with complex choreography and colorful costumes.
Photo courtesy of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company.

It’s February, and that means plenty of attention for the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company.

Since its launch in Fort Lee in 1988, the 12-member troupe has shown up to chase off winter doldrums with its Chinese New Year celebration at venues around New York and New Jersey. NJPAC in Newark has practically engraved the celebration on its calendar; this year’s shows on February 6 and 7 mark 18 years of performances there.

But the troupe stays active with a variety of programs throughout the year. It is currently in residence on the campus of New Jersey City University in Jersey City.

“From the beginning, we’ve believed in being balanced, in bringing people a combination of modern dance and traditional Chinese dance,” says founder Nai-Ni Chen, who lives in Englewood Cliffs with her husband, Andy Chiang, the company’s executive director. “Through a lot of experience, we’ve learned how to help people cross cultural boundaries. That’s been our journey.”

Even the Chinese New Year celebration changes every year to reflect the Chinese zodiac; this year’s performance is called “Year of the Monkey.” Such performances represent the traditional Chinese side of the company’s programming. On the other hand, Chen estimates that half the company’s performances are strictly modern dance with touches of Chinese influence.

“Some of our dancers trained in classical ballet or contemporary dance and have to learn Chinese dance. Some performances are all modern, with no obvious traditional Chinese elements,” says Chen, who started dancing as a 4-year-old in Taiwan and later trained there in ballet before attending a Chinese performance arts school. In 1982, after performing with the renowned Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, she enrolled at New York University. “After I came to the States, I was more focused on making dance,” she says.

Chen’s eye as a curator was much in evidence at a recent five-hour rehearsal of a modern piece called “Whirlwind” in the Jersey City studio. As Chen watched for missteps, a group of non-dance students clustered at the back of the room to gape at the nine male and female dancers in tights, some with bandaged feet, who twirled, leaped and bent their bodies rhythmically to a Middle Eastern soundtrack. “Whirlwind” is a new piece inspired by Chen and Chiang’s 2012 trip to the Silk Road.

“The choreography of this one is complex,” says Chen. “It incorporates folk dance and influences from Indian dance and Arab rhythms. A lot of times in dance, we’re trying to communicate things that can’t be said.”

Chen’s communication within the company, which has performed in 41 states and travels internationally, is often more direct.
“Nai-Ni gives us notes after every rehearsal,” says Greta Campo, a 26-year-old dancer from Italy who studied and danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York before landing a spot in the company four years ago. “She sees everything, like what transitions need to improve, if a movement needs to be sharper.”

Chiang handles external communications, which enables him to help match performances with expectations. For example, narration guides schoolchildren through shows like the Chinese New Year celebration. Feedback also provides an education on what can’t be left out of a performance. For the New Year celebration, the colorful ribbon dance is essential, as is the traditional dragon dance—where a team of dancers moves a flexible dragon using poles.

“Everybody wants to see that,” Chiang says. “It’s mandatory.”

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