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New Vocabulary, Old Expression : Dance: Nai-Ni Chen 'speaks the truth' by integrating traditional Chinese movement with a contemporary Western lexicon. Her troupe performs tonight in Cerritos.

October 04, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nai-Ni Chen has one foot in Taiwan and one in New Jersey, but she's got Peking and New York covered, too--not to mention ancient and contemporary, folk and classical.

Performances by her Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, tonight and Wednesday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, reflect the entire range.

"The American audience is more familiar with European tradition and culture," Chen said from her home in Fort Lee, N. J. "They can appreciate contemporary (European dance) because it is on one family tree with ballet. The contemporary dance created by this company is something different. It's like me. I have the Chinese tradition in my body, then the contemporary happens on my body. In order for the audience to appreciate my modern vocabulary, first they must see Chinese tradition."

That tradition, and Chen's program, include two dances popular throughout China: "Ribbon Dance," which uses colorful ribbon to represent the clouds and rainbows surrounding celestial beings, and "Preamble to the Battle of General Kao," an excerpt from Peking Opera utilizing martial arts, acrobatics and dance skills. "Fan Dance" is typical of China south of the Yangtze River, while "Tai-Ping Drum Dance" comes from the northeastern mountain area.

The troupe features five dancers of Chinese descent, four who are not. The program features four dances of ancient origin, five that are not.

"Traditional Chinese dance is very visual, very colorful," Chen said. "It was (meant) to entertain the emperor in the palace or for festival celebrations and other happy occasions.

"It's a transition to leap into the more artistic (dance). The contemporary is (in some ways) more sophisticated, not just entertainment. We are telling you something other than just for fun. Like a painting we describe scenery, or a poem, or a Chinese legend."

For the contemporary portion of the show, Chen's "Journey of a Lonely Soul" is inspired by Peking Opera, her "Movable Figures" by the shadow puppets popular throughout Southeast Asia. The idyllic "Peach Flower Landscape" is based on Chinese legend, "Hidden Cove" on the spirited movements of Taiwan, where Chen was raised, and "Du (The Passage)" on Buddhist ritual and spiritual transformation.

"Every piece is a part of me," Chen said. " 'Peach Flower Landscape' is subtle, very delicate, the female part of me. 'Du' expresses more the warrior type of character--very grounded, earthy, with a lot of strength, another part of me I love deeply." As a child, Chen was trained in traditional Chinese dance. As a teen, she was exposed to Western ballet, modern dance and jazz. She came to the United States in 1982 to study modern dance with Martha Graham, later earning a master's degree in dance at New York University. Her company, which she formed in 1987, was recently awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a dance based on Chinese calligraphy to a new score by Joan La Barbara.

"I like to integrate both aesthetics, Eastern and Western," Chen said. "My dancers and I experiment every day. I believe that if I let movement come out naturally from my body, if I speak the truth from my heart, it will express my background--traditional Chinese movement and a Western dance vocabulary."

* The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company performs tonight and Wednesday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m. Tickets are $20-$35. For youths 16 and under, tickets are $16. Phone (310) 916-8500.

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