I find a lot of inspiration in nature," says choreographer Nai-Ni Chen. "I start to imagine movement, and then I go to the studio and improvise."
Chen's piece Bamboo Prayer is a result of this process and is one of five dances the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company will perform at the Buckman Performing and Fine Arts Center at St. Mary's Episcopal School on Friday and Saturday, October 28th and 29th.
In Bamboo Prayer, five women dance with long bamboo poles. "The poles form shapes and interesting textures," Chen explains. "When I look at nature, I always see rhythms and texture."
Chen creates dances that speak to her childhood growing up in the lush and rain-soaked landscape of Taiwan as well as her experiences as an immigrant in the United States. After visiting a sculpture garden in New Jersey, for instance, she couldn't stop thinking about Nine Muses, a statue based on Greek mythology. Chen suddenly understood that the beliefs she brought from Taiwan and the ideas symbolized by the statue were more similar than she had first realized.
"It reminded me of spirituality -- and how it's very common. Spirituality is a part of everyone," Chen says. This led to Incense, a dance that she choreographed to describe the universality of spirituality.
Neptune's Dialogue is a dance of three duets that play on the moon and its conversation with the sea. The idea for the dance came during a visit to a Florida beach: "I saw a beautiful moon on a dark ocean. I saw light emerging from the bottom of the ocean and felt how powerful the ocean is at night."
Chen wasn't always as free to express herself through choreography. "My background is rooted in tradition," she says. While studying movement for nine years in Taiwan, the dancer immersed herself in Peking opera, martial arts, music, ballet, and modern dance. A professional dancer by age 16, she struck out on her own in 1982 and went on to form the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in 1988. She was longing for a new style of movement that would be both modern and mindful of her heritage. Chen arrived at a cross-cultural form of contemporary dance. "[Modern dance] gives a lot of freedom," says Chen. "This dance lets me look to the past and to the future. I call it my modern choreography."
Chen's choreography traverses the divide between East and West. "Asia is exposed to Western ideas, and the West knows some of Asia," she says, "but this is really a way to bring the two together."
That divide is more than cultural. It's physical as well. While many of the members of Chen's company are Asian or have direct familial or cultural connections to the East, Kelly Hamlin, a native of Richmond, Virginia, is one of the company's few representatives from the West. "Coming from an African-American or more ethnic background, as far as my training in dance is concerned, I found this approach to be very different," Hamlin says. The Asian influence in modern dance, from Hamlin's point of view, brings a rigor and self-discipline that was not as evident in her more free-styling days at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey School.
"Nai-Ni's choreography brings more of a visual-arts quality. She works with a lot of props -- as do other Asian modern dance companies. It really brings the pieces to life," Hamlin says, referring to the company's brilliantly colored costumes and its martial-arts-inspired use of poles, Chinese umbrellas, and other props. Chuckling, Hamlin adds, "Sometimes we call it the Asian invasion. And that's a good thing!"
For Hamlin, dance is the perfect way to join Eastern and Western cultures -- all cultures, really. "When I'm dancing," she says, "I feel like I'm in another world, another time."
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company
The Buckman Performing and Fine Arts Center
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, October 28th-29th, $23