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A blending of dance and music

By Caroline Berg in Cheverly, Maryland | China Daily | Updated: 2013-05-24 15:20

 A blending of dance and music

Dancers perform the last show of Temptation of the Muses in the Publick Playhouse in Maryland. Provided to China Daily

When Sabrina Jaafer told her friend from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York that she and the Nai- Ni Chen Dance Company were going to perform at the Publick Playhouse in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, her friend gushed.

"Oh, you're going to love it!" the friend told Jaafer. "They have the best audience."

After a stringed prelude by the Ahn Trio, which played live onstage throughout the 11-piece dance and music presentation, stirred the audience to hoots and applause, the dancers were confident this was going to be a good Temptation of the Muses - their last performance of the show this season.

"During the duet, I could hear the audience gasp when Daniel [Johnson] lifted me, and they always made a sound when I'd go into a handstand," Ekaterina Chernikhova said with a laugh in recalling the performance of Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac.

The 75-minute program is a collaborative effort involving Taiwan choreographer Nai-Ni Chen, the Korean violin-cello-piano Ahn sisters' trio, original works by American composer Kenji Bunch and the improvisation of Chen's international dance troupe.

Chen drew inspiration for the movement and sound in Temptation of the Muses from the poem A Word for Freedom, by Afghan-born Latif Nazemi about a Persian poet. It begins, "Let's kiss water / the root of civilization / a word for freedom".

"I've used the idea of water as freedom to choreograph this piece, and with this idea you see more of an Asian touch with the sensibility of how I use the dancers," Chen said. "The quietness, the stillness and the subtleties in the movement - in this piece you can see more of that influence from my Asian cultural background."

Chen incorporates elements of her Asian heritage into her choreography whenever she deems it appropriate for her cross-cultural contemporary troupe. In addition to original works, the company also performs a range of traditional Chinese pieces, including Hubei Coin Stick Dance, Mongolian Chopstick Dance, and Love Song of Xishuangbanna.

Temptation is more American than Chinese in its style, with touches of jazz, classic rock and country in the score. However, careful study of the choreography reveals Asian undertones.

"It may not be entirely clear that this movement is from martial arts or that movement is from Peking Opera, but the influence is evident in the staging and the visual elements," Chen said.

"You can compare it to a Chinese painting with the contrasts between the yin and yang, and the empty white part, and the strokes of calligraphy."

Chen said she always takes these ideas into consideration when she choreographs a dance, regardless of the overall cultural style of the performance - East, West or otherwise.

Seven dancers and a lighting specialist traveled 3? hours from their home base in New Jersey in two vehicles with Chen to perform at the historic 500- seat theater in Cheverly, Maryland. Their partners onstage, the Ahn Trio, traveled from New York City and Montana.

Chen has her dancers congregate around the musicians onstage - sitting with them, watching them, flirting with them, crawling under a piano, standing on their chairs. The choreographer layers all of these elements in a way that unites the movement with the music.

"The dancers must be very aware of where they are and, at the same time, they can't show any resistance," Chen said. "We have to show how we are really blending together and not have any cautious feelings translated to the audience."

After the performance, all of the performers met with audience members at a reception in the lobby. The patrons eagerly discussed with Chen and the performers the choreography and feelings experienced throughout the diverse range of numbers.

"It's so great how you incorporated the musicians and connected all the elements in the choreography," one person told Chen, who has been running her company since 1988.

Chen said the trio was a little stiff as it played through the integrated movement at the beginning, but she has seen them open up over time and become more comfortable with the choreography.

"In terms of Nai-Ni's choreography, [Temptation] is not as physically demanding as something like Whirlwind, which is like a marathon," Chernikhova said of a dance by Chen that was inspired by her time traveling along the Silk Road in China. "Dancing to live music is the more challenging element in this work."

Nai-Ni Chen and the Ahn Trio have been performing and tweaking this show since its premiere in New York in 2010. Over a span of about 30 performances, dancers have come and gone.

Chen will be holding auditions on June 3 in preparation for another season. Her current troupe is made up of dancers from the United States, China, the Republic of Korea, Russia, Italy and Cuba.

Although Chen draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources, including poems, calligraphy, travel, current events and music, she said she often gets ideas just from improvising with her dancers in the studio.

"A sudden inspiration will come up and I'll remember something from my childhood and I'll put that memory somehow into my choreography," Chen said. "I think because of who I am, subconsciously [my Asian background] is going to come out in my work no matter what."



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