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Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company Tells the Story of Chinese New Year’s Origin through Dance

By Ilene Dube,

originally published: 01/04/2024

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company Tells the Story of Chinese New Year’s Origin through Dance

Chinese New Year is always a favorite time of the year. Friends and family gather at favorite Chinese restaurants, wear red, eat dumplings and long noodles, and hand out red envelopes filled with money. But how many of us really know why it’s celebrated?

The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company uses the language of dance to tell the origin story of the holiday. Since 2017, the Newark-based company has been celebrating the Chinese New Year with a performance of Red Firecrackers. Suited to ages 6-15, this year’s production will be performed on January 21 at the Grunin Center in Toms River.

Described in press materials as “a spectacular production of dazzling props, colorful costumes, mesmerizing music, fantastic acrobatics, and lively dance by top notch performers,” Red Firecrackers brings to the stage the origins of the Chinese Lunar New Year. In this legend, a group of villagers, working, dancing and praying together, defeated a terrifying monster of the ages. The story highlights the intrinsic value of coming together, working hard, and having courage and ingenuity. It also explains why celebrants wear red, give red envelopes to children, put up red decorations, and light up dark corners with red firecrackers to make loud noises.

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company Tells the Story of Chinese New Year’s Origin through Dance

The program includes a colorful ribbon dance, a harvest dance, a warrior dance, a firecracker dance, and props such as fans, brooms, and batons with red tassels. Audience interaction is encouraged during the one-hour performance.

Nai-Ni Chen – the dancer and choreographer who founded the company in Fort Lee in 1988 – died while swimming in Hawaii in December 2021 at age 62. The company, which has toured the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and educated generations of dance students, continues in her memory, thanks to the dedicated company members and her husband, Andy Chiang, who is the executive director.

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Born and trained in Taiwan, Chen emigrated to the U.S. in her early 20s. The eponymous dance company melds traditional and contemporary dance repertoire. According to its website, the company’s mission is to “be a premier provider of innovative cultural experiences that reflect the inspiring hope and energy of the immigrant’s journey. It was founded with the vision that the immigrant’s journey of crossing cultures and adapting to a new home provides endless inspirations and opportunities for creative expressions that can enrich the human experience.”

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company Tells the Story of Chinese New Year’s Origin through Dance

Ever since she was a child, Nai-Ni felt moved to dance whenever she heard music, and so her mother signed her up for lessons at age 4. There were no professional dancers in Taiwan at the time, she said in an archival interview on a recent State of the Arts documentary remembering her. “She just wanted me to have good posture – that’s the reason she sent me to dance school.”

The 4-year-old fell in love with folk dance and ballet. She took it seriously, joining a professional contemporary dance company at age 16. In 1982, she spent a month in New York, performing at the Minskoff Theatre and taking classes with the Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham companies. It was then that she met Chiang, an MIT student who would become her husband. She went on to earn a master’s degree at NYU.

After dancing with other companies, Chen wanted to express her own voice and knew the only way to do that was with her own company.

The multiracial and multinational company has collaborated with composers such as Oscar-winning Tan Dun and musicians such as the Ahn Trio. “The message we are trying to convey to people has everything to do with sharing cultures in this smaller and smaller modern world,” she told The Star-Ledger in 1996. 

In 2022, Chen was posthumously awarded a lifetime achievement award through the New York Bessies.

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company Tells the Story of Chinese New Year’s Origin through Dance

Chen had roots in martial arts, Chinese opera, and jazz, but her work drew on many influences, according to her New York Times obituary. Even rain drops and calligraphy were among her sources of inspiration.

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“I believe that if I let movement come out naturally from my body, if I speak the truth from my heart, it will express my background — traditional Chinese movement and a Western dance vocabulary,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1994.

“The finale dance for Red Firecrackers, titled ‘Festival,’ was part of a commission by the Lincoln Center Institute in 1998, as was the opening piece, ‘Peach Flower,’” says Chiang. “Nai-Ni used some of her most iconic works as the basis for ‘Red Firecrackers.’ She added the opening scene to create an introduction to the story, and added interactive elements to bring the audience on stage and take part in the telling of the story. We also tried different ways to show the monster, Nian, and we commissioned a paper cut piece from master Hotien Chang that was digitized and used as part of the lighting. ”

Grunin Center for the Arts, Toms River, NJ | January 21, 2023 @ 1pm. Click here for ticket information

About the author: Driven by her love of the arts, and how it can make us better human beings, Ilene Dube has written for JerseyArts, Hyperallergic, WHYY Philadelphia, Sculpture Magazine, Princeton Magazine, U.S. 1, Huffington Post, the Princeton Packet, and many others. She has produced short documentaries on the arts of central New Jersey, as well as segments for State of the Arts, and has curated exhibitions at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie and Morven Museum in Princeton, among others. Her own artwork has garnered awards in regional exhibitions and her short stories have appeared in dozens of literary journals. A life-long practitioner of plant-based eating, she can be found stocking up on fresh veggies at the West Windsor Farmers Market.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.



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