On the Frontlines of Fighting for Diversity and Inclusion: An Interview with Nai-Ni Chen

One of the things I love about my blog is the opportunity to highlight artists and arts administrators who are “storms”—they are fearless,hard workers; they are engaging their audiences; they are building bridges with diverse communities, and they are moving the needle with their creativity. My intention also is to use this platform to explore diversity in the arts so that the cultural mosaic of America is acknowledged and celebrated.  This is especially crucial now when we are witnessing the attempted diminishment of the power ofthe arts and an attack on its funding, while the voices and values of the “very nice” members of the alt-right, neo-Nazi and white supremacy organizations are being promoted. If this is going to change, we must take a stand; we must shout, celebrate and share our work, our lives, our love.

This week’s blog spotlights a fierce artistic voice on the frontlines of this battle. Nai-Ni Chen is the founder of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company.She has forged a bold path that reflects her cultural heritage; her personal experience as a Taiwanese immigrant to the United States, as well as her education and training in different forms of dance. Nai-Ni formed her company in 1988. Her work has defied the pigeon-hole of “ethnic dance,” and has been heralded by the New York Times as “rare modern dance choreography,” and “spiritual” by Dance Magazine. The following is an excerpt from a recent interview I conducted with her.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How do you maintain your craft in a multicultural world and maintain the freedom to express yourself without being judged or having to pander to expectations that you can only do “ethnic dance?”

 Nai-Ni Chen: I began my formal training in traditional Chinese dance at the age of 4. But I have always been very interested in all types of dance. I also trained in ballet and folk dance before attending a performing arts school where I was exposed to modern dance. I appreciated and loved all different forms of dance because they each contributed to the definition of self. I have a general interest in embracing all forms of dance; embracing, not choosing one over the other.

When I moved to America in 1982 to attend New York University on a student visa, there weren’t many dancers migrating here from Taiwan. I had to leave all of my family and friends. But I was thirsty to learn more about modern dance and it was a big decision to live here, create art and become a true artist. At that time, I felt that the US was full of diversity, energy and was a true melting pot because of all of the people here with different cultural backgrounds. Each of them had a diverse voice that contributed to the shaping of society, community and the art world.  It felt like a kaleidoscope. I soon realized that this (America) is a place where I could be inspired and grow to become an artist, and one day my contributions would help the dance world and society.

 DW-K: How would you describe your mission for diversity and inclusion at your company? 

 N-NC: My mission is to establish a world-class dance company with vibrant work that celebrates the diversity of the global community. My mission also is to promote appreciation of dance through performance and teaching. When we look at the future, we want to ensure that our work continues to impact future generations. Take for example Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, which was first created in 1960. Nearly 60 years later, generation after generation continues to find the performance of Revelations deeply meaningful and inspirational. That is my fundamental goal—to create something that will not just satisfy the present but have value that will last into the future and affect the future generations.

DW-K: What challenges have you faced?

 N-NC: Early on, I knew our mission also would be educating the public and promoting understanding. About 20 years ago, I was in the Midwest. I walked into a restaurant. I was the only Asian person there; the rest of the customers were all white. At first, there was total silence and then everyone continued eating. No one said “hello,” or smiled. And yet, I had brought my company there to perform for that town.

As a company, we had to help people open their minds and their hearts to experience a contemporary approach to traditional art. Immigrant art does come from different places and people may feel intimidated or uncomfortable in the beginning. But recognizing differences amongst us encourages and promotes understanding and harmony. And then people will become inspired and be able to look beyond the differences. Dance is a universal language and the work is genuine. I believe that alone is enough. We all possess the same spirit and passion.

Also, as soon as venues, artistic directors or promoters heard the name of my company, Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, they assumed we did “ethnic dance.” As a society, we are so used to labeling people and putting them in a box or sticking them in a category. So, people automatically expected only traditional Chinese dance. I spoke with presenters about that. One asked me: “Are you traditional or modern?” And I said, “Both!” But he didn’t believe it was possible for us to perform both. We had to prove ourselves again and again.

When it came time to create an identity for marketing, for a period of time, I questioned myself. I wondered whether I should give up traditional and focus solely on contemporary, which I would’ve done if I had been forced to choose. I always want to be looking to the future. But then I asked myself, “Why do I have to choose? Why not do both—truly appreciate the past, as well as use it as a foundation for the future?”

Consequently, I decided to ignore the obstacles. I believed that one day people would change their minds about labeling us. My company’s recognition would be hard-earned. And that is how Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company was forged and continues today.

 DW-K: How do you educate audiences?

 N-NC:During our concerts, I encourage pre-performance talks and post-performance discussions. I enjoy that very much and ask our presenters to include that interchange as part of the show experience.  For the audience, open talk is also very valuable—it creates and promotes understanding of not just the dancers onstage, but also helps create a deeper understanding of another culture. The more you know about the culture, the deeper you’re able to see into the work. It’s no longer just “pretty movements;” people are able to connect to what is being expressed through the dance.

 DW-K: What are you most proud of doing to fulfill the mission for audience engagement?

 N-NC: We do lots of residencies and we also work with children who attend public schools in underserved communities. We will always work with children as the foundation of our outreach efforts. They are the future and will always be an important part of our mission.We find that when children attend dance classes they become different; they are so pure. Each child has a chance. Although they may not excel in math and reading, dance is something that can open up their imaginations and promote creativity.

Recently, my company has been working at A Harry Moore School which is a unique public school in Jersey City, NJ, dedicated to educating children who are wheelchair-bound and/or have physical, mental and emotional disabilities. I began to use dance as a tool to help the children open up. The principal was in tears as he watched the kids perform, because the children’s range of motion exceeded expectation.  Through dance I am helping these children get to the next level.

 DW-K: You have a diverse company – is that by choice?

 N-NC: During the audition process, I am colorblind in the sense that I do not look at people’s skin color, but I look at the “color” of their dancing.  To me, “Color” means the special quality and sensibility each dancer carries while they are dancing.  And I am looking for that unique color to put together to create a beautiful painting.  Each dancer brings to the canvas their individual personality, their technique and artistry. Dancers with difference backgrounds will provide me with new inspirations.  They contribute to the creative process and give me a much wider palette to work with.  Dancers must be versatile and open minded to fit into the company.   If I had only wanted to work with Asian dancers I would have stayed in Taiwan.

D W-K: What do you think about today’s current political climate and its impact on the arts?

 N-NC: Despite the divisive political climate, I am very positive about things. Chinese culture is more than 5,000 years old. When you study Chinese history, you see periods of unity and disunity. Nothing is forever; in time, the U.S. will unite again.The reason I came to this country and decided to stay is because in the U.S. art is like a kaleidoscope. There are many colors of people contributing to its culture based on individual uniqueness, which is how a beautiful painting is created. We all can contribute to this beautiful painting and together create beautiful artwork and a beautiful world.