The greatest challenge Chen found in choreographing her work was representing all the experiences she had along the Silk Road, including the ancient caves and murals in Dunhuang, Muslim life in mosques, the nomadic Mongolian life and the natural world of mountains, grasses and desert.
"It's hard to start in the beginning and find the place to put your foot down," Chen says. "It took a lot of improvisation with the dancers to really find what I want to say."
Seven dancers begin the dance standing in two staggered lines as a group of travelers in a caravan, slowly leaning back and forth. Then, in a moment, they begin twirling and jumping as though caught in the desert wind.
"It's like watching an abstract painting," Chen says. "You can find your own story rather than the painter telling you exactly what the story is about."
Apart from Whirlwind, Chen has developed another modern work based on her Silk Road experience called Mirage, based on Uygur dance and music.
The choreographer imagines this sensory overload and excess of material she possesses will lead to a Silk Road series.
"There's so much more to say," Chen says, who plans to visit the road again and explore Central Asia next. "It's going to take many more years to develop this idea."
Whirlwind was created with support from a Live Music for Dance grant from New Music USA, which is supported in part by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
Before the first performance commenced in the evening of April 13, Martin Wechsler, director of programming at Joyce Theater who attends an average of three to four dance performances a week, said he doubted Whirlwind would make it to the Joyce stage because the theater prefers to showcase New York premieres.
However, after the winded dancers took their bows, Wechsler admitted he might have to reconsider.
"That was very good," he says.