In December, shock shook the dance community when it was announced that choreographer Nai-Ni Chen had died in a swimming accident in Hawaii while on vacation. A prolific dance artist specializing in contemporary and traditional works, 62-year-old Chen was a powerful presence in the Chinese-American dance community.
Andrew N. Chiang, the soft-spoken executive director of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, was also Chen’s husband. On the plane home from Hawaii to New Jersey — “a very, very difficult trip,” he recalled in a recent interview — he realized he didn’t know what to do next. Should he dissolve the company? Maintain it?
He remembered a friend’s advice: “When you don’t know what to do, you have to reach out,” Chiang said. “So I thought, who do I know? Who can I talk to?”
Three women immediately came to mind: Greta Campo, PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ying Shi. Each had a connection with his wife. And each had a different set of dance skills that would not only help keep the company running, but guide it forward – especially Chien-Pott, whom Chen considered the next generation and who she had previously chatted with. choreography for the group.
In part, through conversations with the three women, Chiang “began to see the possible way forward,” he said, “and became optimistic about making the company a resource for artists like Nai-Ni who are committed to the art form and believe in its power to transform people from within.
Together, the three women form the new artistic team. Campo, formerly the group’s associate artistic director and a dancer with the company since 2012, is acting artistic director, while Chien-Pott, Martha Graham’s former extraordinaire, has become the choreographer and director of contemporary and creative dance. the company. Ying Shi is a choreographer and director of traditional dance and preservation, which is part of the company’s mission. The other part, Chiang said, was to preserve Chen’s dances in the repertoire, while introducing new works, both in contemporary and traditional veins.
Beginning Thursday, the company presents “Awakening,” an evening at New York Live Arts that includes Chen’s final work, “Unity,” which is completed by Chien-Pott, with music commissioned by Jason Kao Hwang.
“It’s based on a story that we all learned from a children’s book in Taiwan,” said Chien-Pott, who, like Chen, was born and raised in Taiwan. “If you’re holding just one wand, it’s easy to break. But if you’re holding a bunch of chopsticks, it’s much harder to be broken or bent, so it’s a gathering. It is this power of unity, the power of unity that Nai-Ni wanted to talk about.
In the artwork, bundles of sticks symbolize not only collective strength, but also the dynamite that Chinese immigrant workers used to blast mountains during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. “Unity,” which Chen created during the pandemic, also incorporates elements of martial arts — its six dancers trained with master teacher Sifu Yuan Zhang. Now, Chien-Pott works with the dancers to refine the choreography and make it as authentic as possible.
As a performer in the “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise” production at The Shed, Chien-Pott received martial arts training in China “to do these moves really well,” she said. “Don’t dance martial arts; it’s Make martial arts, and having it make sense of my body so that I can use that form to speak my own language.
During a recent rehearsal, Chien-Pott demonstrated how sinking lower into a lunge gives the body more power and agility, and how the right accents, combined with strength, can create a sense of deeper tension. She took the drama out of the dancers’ faces and put it into their bodies, especially their backs.
Understanding that the back is where movement initiation occurs is important for how it guides dancers in the handling of weapons, primarily sticks of varying lengths. “You don’t want to be swayed by the guns, you want to sway them,” Chien-Pott said. “You have to be grounded. You don’t want to get thrown out.
As the structure of “Unity” was established, Chien-Pott’s job was to create transitions and work with the composer to create a more symbiotic connection between movement and music. She also made changes to the choreography, both to help it read more clearly and to bring out the individuality of the dancers while adhering to Chen’s circular, grounded style.
Over the years, Chien-Pott and Chen had been friends, but the pandemic elevated their relationship; Chen offered free dance lessons and asked Chien-Pott to teach on his platform. “I really connected with her and her community,” Chien-Pott said. “And then we started a conversation about me creating a new work for her company. I was very excited. She was inviting me to attend a rehearsal for the company to get to know the dancers from the company and some days later, the tragedy happened.
With her work on “Unity”, she tried to preserve, she says, the beauty of Chen’s style and form. “At the same time, Nai-Ni gave me a lot of freedom when we were talking about the new way she wanted me to create a future for the business,” Chien-Pott said. “I believe Nai-Ni wanted me to continue his language, his sentences through my art.”
But the sustainability of the company is a priority. After its season at Live Arts, the company has a robust spring, including performances of “Red Firecrackers,” a family production in honor of Lunar New Year, in New Castle, NY; the CrossCurrent Dance Festival, an event produced by the company to highlight Asian American dance, at Flushing City Hall; and a celebration of the Year of the Tiger, with Korean chamber group Ahn Trio, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Chien-Pott will also continue a collaboration begun by Chen with the Polish choreographer Jacek Luminski.
The speed with which Chiang moved to ensure the company delivers and create a foundation for the future is striking, but for him it comes down to one thing: “It’s his life”, a- he declared. “He was taken away so quickly. There are several pieces in place that she was still working on, and “Unity” is one of them, and just as we’re about to do that, Ukraine happened. It takes a lot of power and resilience to be able to have this unit. It’s not just something we talk about.
And this message runs through many of Chen’s works. An example is “Incense” (2003), which Chien-Pott decided to add to the Live Arts program after studying it on video. “It’s very much like my time playing Martha’s old work,” she said, referring to her experience watching archival films at the Graham Company.
“Incense” is inspired by temples, which Chen loved to visit as a child. “The purpose of burning incense sticks is to send our prayer, our hope to the gods, to the ancestors,” Chien-Pott said. “It’s honoring Nai-Ni. And that’s the beauty of constantly hoping for a better future and sending a prayer out to the universe.