Dance company conjures a 'Whirlwind' premier

Updated: 2013-04-12 11:19

By Caroline Berg in New York (China Daily)

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 Dance company conjures a 'Whirlwind' premier

In her first season with the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, Italian native Greta Campo performs Whirlwind, based on choreographer Chen's experience traveling the Silk Road in China. Joseph Wagner / Provided to China Daily

Nai-Ni Chen went to China's Silk Road and got caught in a whirlwind. The mosaic of cultures and nature she observed on a summer of travel inspired her to choreograph a contemporary dance embodying the spirit of this ancient trade route.

"Whirlwind is the cultures, art, energies and people coming from different parts of the world and somehow met here on the Silk Road and intertwined," the Taiwan native choreographer and artistic director of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company said. "I refer back to the whirlwind - this natural phenomenon in the desert - and use that as a starting point to move the language and set the structure for the dance."

Whirlwind is the product of two years of planning and collaboration. The two-part, hour-long dance incorporates eight men and women dancers from the United States, Italy, Russia and South Korea, as well as original music by percussionist Glen Velez and visual art by Jayanthi Moorthy of India.

During the New York premiere at Salvatore Capezio Theater at Peridance, with two performances over the weekend, partially unclad dancers in silk earth-toned costumes glistened with sweat from the fluctuating, and sometimes acrobatic, movements.

"I try to explore contrasts in terms of rhythm and dynamics," Chen said. "Like when you listen to music with one instrument on top of another or if you look at the many components in nature that overlap, you'll see layers of movement that overlap with the dancers."

The dance employs trance, rhythmic breathing and spiral motions to emulate the shape and energy of a desert whirlwind. It also adopts from traditional characters like Mongolian horsemen and flying eagles as well as the celebratory movements of the Uyghur people.

"There are a lot of folk elements in these dances," Chen said. "Folk dancing is very beautiful. It doesn't matter which culture the folk dancing is from, it represents the human spirit, it comes from the people. It's a great inspiration."

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 said. "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 like the desert wind.

"It's like watching an abstract painting," Chen said. "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 Uyghur 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 said, 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 in 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 Saturday night, 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 premiers.

However, after the winded dancers took their bows, Wechsler admitted he might have to reconsider.

"That was very good," he said.

(China Daily 04/12/2013 page11)