In Tribute to Nai-Ni Chen

December 19, 2021—I was deeply saddened to learn this past week about the accidental death of my colleague, Nai-Ni Chen, the founder and choreographer of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company. 

Nai-Ni was a fierce, artistic voice; a “storm” for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Access. She was a bold, fearless, hard-working warrior, who was dedicated to engaging audiences; building bridges with diverse communities; developing dance education programs for children of all abilities, and constantly pushing the boundaries of dance with her boundless creativity.

Nai-Ni choreographed more than 70 dances during the course of her vibrant career, which spanned more than 30 years. The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company toured throughout the U.S (from the South to the Heartland), as well as around the world. Nai-Ni’s signature technique, Kinetic Spiral, fuses the dynamism of contemporary dance with the essence of Chinese traditional art. It has been described as both rigorous and healing.

Nai-Ni defied the pigeon-hole of “ethnic dance” and the limited perceptions of booking agents. Her company’s work was heralded by the New York Times as “rare modern dance choreography,” and “spiritual” by Dance Magazine.

I can tell you from personal experience, one walked away from a performance by the multiracial and multinational Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company feeling transformed and empowered by the synthesis of American modern dance with the grace and splendor of the Asian arts.

I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Nai-Ni for one of my earliest posts for Arts & Culture Connections. I am paying tribute to her this week by sharing some of the lessons in EDI&A that she shared during that interview. These are lessons that I hope our greater arts community will never forget.

Nai-Ni shared:

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 dance, which I would’ve done if I had been forced to choose. But I always want to be looking to the future, so 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

And 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. (More than) 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.

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. Nothing is forever. In time, the U.S. will unite again.

Nai-Ni’s untimely death, at the age of 62, is a reminder of the importance of living each moment with conviction and passion, and to be the “storm” of change, like she was, with courageous optimism. I will forever treasure each opportunity I had to spend with Nai-Ni, and I am grateful for the gift of artistry she shared with me, as well as with countless others.

I hope you will join me in remembering Nai-Ni and the Company by visiting their YouTube channel. There also is a recent video in which she shares the magic behind a collaboration between her company and The Ahn Trio, titled “A Quest for Freedom.” I encourage you to spend some time enveloped in the originality of the company’s vast array of works.

I also hope you will join me in keeping Nai-Ni’s husband and the Company’s Executive Director, Andy Chiang; their daughter Sylvia, and the entire dance company in your heart and prayers.

As always, I want to know what you think. I invite you to share your memories in the comments section below of Nai-Ni, and/or performances by the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company.

2 thoughts on “In Tribute to Nai-Ni Chen

  1. Donna,

    Thanks so much for this beautiful tribute to Nai-Ni Chen. I join you and our entire community in the celebration of her life. She was indeed a quiet, gentle storm who brought us such beauty and grace…a BLESSING to all our lives. My prayers are with Andy and Sylvia.

    Stephanie Hughley

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