Chinatown showcases dance series

Updated: 2014-01-18 01:13

By KELLY CHUNG DAWSON in New York (China Daily USA)

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Chinatown showcases dance series

Choreographer and dancer Adam Wile performs at a dress rehearsal for Chen Dance Center's Newsteps showcase this weekend in Chinatown. The show is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Kelly Chung Dawson / China Daily

When the Taiwan-born dancer and co-founder of Chinatown's Chen Dance Center H.T. Chen arrived in New York in the late 1970s, he spoke limited English.

At the conclusion of his first day at Juilliard, a teacher reached to shake his hand and placed two subway tokens there, a small gesture he has never forgotten, he told China Daily ahead of the school's Newsteps choreographer series this weekend.

For more than 30 years, the school that Chen and his wife Dian Dong founded has served the Chinese community in that same spirit, nurturing dancers who in many cases couldn't otherwise afford the training.

"In the years since we started the school, I've been very, very moved to see so many Chinese families send their children to study dance with us," Chen said. "As a kid in Taiwan, I never had those opportunities, and creating this school was a chance to give the community a way of looking at the arts as a possible profession. I really believe that all good art has an important social value, because otherwise, artists are only creating for themselves."

Newsteps, the center's semi-annual showcase for emerging choreographers, celebrates the work of six young artists this year: Adam Wile, Jin Ju Song-Begin, Calen Kurka, Luis Gabriel Zaragoza, Hilary Brown and Briana Brown. Although the school is predominantly attended by Chinese students, the couple has for 20 years hosted an open showcase that has drawn dancers and choreographers of all backgrounds.

"We've always had two communities: our community here in Chinatown, but also the dance community," Dong said. The two met while studying at Juilliard, and have run the center together since its inception in 1980.

"I make the messes, and she cleans them up," Chen joked about Dong, who considers herself his "partner in crime," she said. Dong is fifth-generation Chinese American, raised in New Jersey.

When the school opened, there was no other performing arts theater or venue in Chinatown, she recalled. No other school offered weekly classes for local children. For many immigrants, a lack of language fluency and funds made the prospect of dance classes seem impossible.

"So many people in Chinatown never left the community because of cultural barriers, so we brought dance to them," Dong said. "They were living in the world capital of dance, and yet they'd never seen modern dance. After we opened, it was inspiring to see it begin to broaden their horizons."

The school offers affordable classes at $9 a session, with scholarships for students who need extra help.

For choreographer and dancer Wile, whose work blends contemporary dance technique with urban themes, the opportunity to perform at Chen Dance Center is particularly fitting. Wile's father teaches Mandarin, and Wile studied martial arts as a child. His work clearly demonstrates that influence, in movements that evoke the traditions of kung fu and tai chi.

"That influence is definitely there in the aesthetic of my choreography," Wile said. "Watching my father do tai chi every morning had an effect on me, although I didn't realize until later on that it had seeped into my movements."

Dance-related injuries also forced him to slow down at some point, which provided an opening for the slower flow of tai chi, he said.

In addition to the center's courses for young dancers, the school has its own dance theater: H.T. Chen & Dancers. The company is performing a show titled "Eight Strokes and the Moving Word," an interactive dance performance that draws on both traditional Asian movements and contemporary dance to present Chinese history and folklore.

Dong also does outreach work at the school P.S. 42, meeting with 175 students twice a week, roughly 25 weeks each year, she said.

For Wile, the chance to perform at Chen Dance Center is an honor and a much-needed boost, he said.

"To be able to perform my work, and not have to take a financial hit, is a huge deal, and I'm so grateful to the school," he said. "It's a great opportunity."