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DANCE REVIEW : Nai-Ni Chen Hits, Misses at Cerritos

October 06, 1994|JENNIFER FISHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a world where labels don't stick the way they used to, there are two that Nai-Ni Chen just can't escape--Eastern and Western.

It's all over the publicity materials for her dance company, which appeared Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

Not surprising, since the program (set to taped music) began with theatricalized Chinese folk dancing and moved into modern dance with some traditional echoes woven in.

Like the rest of us, Chen is inevitably a combination of surrounding influences--first in Taiwan and now in New Jersey, where her company is based. But a complex of influences are too hard to track, so we reduce it to East meets West, right?

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Never mind that East is not just "meeting" West anymore: they've met, skirmished and progressed to the tango some time ago.

In which case, the Chen company is dancing in one of your more intriguing areas, where negotiation between tradition, innovation and audience is ongoing--even as the labeling system continues to generalize.

On Tuesday night, Chen began with her traditional Chinese voice, a bright collection of ribbon, fan and drum dances. These were particularly well staged and danced, with the usual bouncing, swaying walks and the unaccountably pleased, tilting faces. They set the patterns for Chen's new pieces, in which dancers also crisscross the stage a lot, move through sculptural poses and cluster in decorative groups.

These strategies worked best in "Peach Flower Landscape," the most beautiful and affective of the contemporary works. Women who pranced in swishy folk-dance lines became more introspective village maidens from Chinese utopian legend.

Creating a blissful mood were the amazingly eloquent, drifting arms in which the company women excel. In a lyrical solo, Catherine Green seemed to wreathe the air around her as if she could make clouds.

On the other hand, watery arms and waving torsos in sea-colored unitards brought the program below sea level in "The Hidden Cove." Chen's occasional tendency to rely on episodic bursts of activity and a face-forward-and-present mentality made this work look like a bad production number for the Academy Awards.

"Movable Figures" had interesting, disjointed movements based on puppets, but the mechanical mood and sameness of phrasing hindered development.

In "Du (The Passage)," a similar malaise set in. When a duet began between Chen and Yu Zhang (a stunningly strong and expressive dancer), it ended abruptly, a reminder that emotional relationships were a missing link during the evening.

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Chen herself is an electric performer with cheekbones almost like the cliffs on Martha Graham's face. Like Graham in "Lamentation," she used fabric to accentuate grief in her solo, "Journey of a Lonely Soul."

But where "Lamentation" showed bound struggle within tightly wrapped folds, Chen mourned with the free-flowing, white silken arcs of Chinese "long sleeves."

East meets West again? The challenge is not just for Chen to fuse her "home" traditions, but for us to remain open to receiving the combinations.

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