Located in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown, the Chen Dance Center encompasses a dance company, a theater, and a school that offers lessons in ballet, modern dance, and martial arts. The mix of the traditional and the modern, art, and discipline, that makes up the school’s curriculum, also characterizes the choreography of the center’s founder H.T. Chen.
The Shanghai born Mr. Chen has brought members of his troupe, H.T. Chen and Dancers, to the Island to participate in a residency at The Yard, a colony for the performing arts located in Chilmark. Since arriving on-Island at the beginning of this month, the artist has been working with his dancers at creating a new piece, an excerpt of which will be featured, with three other pieces, for three shows on June 24 and 25.
Dian Dong, associate director and education director, describes Mr. Chen’s style as, “Contemporary works rooted in Asian themes and aesthetics.” Ms. Dong says of the pieces that will be presented, “You will recognize the arm gestures and the use of movement that resemble the martial arts or tai chi.” The symbolic movements of classic Chinese opera are also seen as an influence on the choreographer’s work. Mr. Chen studied Chinese dance and opera before moving to New York in 1971 to study modern dance at Julliard and elsewhere.
A good example of this blend of cultures and eras can be found in the excerpt from Mr. Chen’s “Heart of Grace,” which will open the show. The piece is based on the traditional Chinese lion dance, in which performers wear a lion costume, including a massive ornamental head, and mimic a lion’s movements. “Instead of wearing traditional costumes and masks we use a very different costume,” Ms. Dong says. “The lion’s head mask is stripped down to the bamboo frame. What happens is that by not hiding behind the mask, the inner soul is revealed — the different aspects of a lion: ferocious, peaceful, elegant, playful. The movement is quite contemporary.”
Similarly drawing from the traditions of his native land, Mr. Chen has incorporated martial arts in his piece “Between Heaven and Earth,” which is a free-association piece accompanied by a composition by award-winning Chinese born composer Zhou Long. “Mountain,” which will be performed by members of the Island community (children on Friday and adult dancers on Saturday), draws from tai chi and, appropriately, it features a theme of resistance.
“Warriors of Light” utilizes the traditional long pole used for stage combat. Says Ms. Dong of this piece, “In Buddhist tradition, monks are considered warriors who fight ignorance and injustice through enlightenment.” For this dance, she says, “We use the pole in a much more graceful way.” Dancers following the lessons of a master, “go through this whole spiritual journey from struggle to enlightenment.”
As for the new piece created during the troupe’s residency, Ms. Dong says, “He may do something fitting or he may change direction and do something avant-garde, so everyone is in for a treat.”
This is the second Vineyard visit for Mr. Chen. Twelve years ago he and two dancers were invited for what Ms. Dong refers to as a “mini-residency.” This time six men and five women have spent three weeks along with Mr. Chen as the 2011 Company in Residence. Their schedule here has included teaching dance classes daily, special performances at the Charter School, the Chilmark Community Center, The Yard, and auditions and rehearsals for the local dancers.
One of the goals of The Yard’s new artistic director, David White, is to expand on an already strong tradition of community involvement.
“I wanted to start out with a company that was dedicated to community commitment,” he says. “They have developed extraordinary work in the schools of New York. They’re known as one of the best according to community work.”
Among numerous awards, H.T. Chen and Dancers have received the New York State Governor’s Award for artistic achievement and contributions to communities and the Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture. Mr. White says that he would eventually like to extend The Yard’s involvement with schools and other local organizations into the off-season, but he adds that The Yard’s current priority is getting its financial footing back. “Given The Yard’s recent history, I’m not committing to anything that we don’t have the money for. I’m using this as sort of a litmus test.”
Mr. White has an established professional relationship with Mr. Chen. Mr. Chen was on the board of the Dance Theater Workshop during the time that Mr. White was the director and producer of that famed New York-based organization. “In New York I presented a lot of important international work,” Mr. White says. “I’d like to continue working with that community. We would hope that at least one residency each summer would be an international residency.”
Of Mr. Chen’s work, Mr. White says, “He looks at contemporary issues yet he frames it in this unique kind of Chinese signature.” He adds, “It’s gratifying to be able to put companies like that in residency as well as the idea of bringing this kind of cultural interaction to the Island both in isolated performances and in work within the community.”
That cultural interaction should prove beneficial to both the artists and the community. Mr. Chen is enjoying a break from city life and has found inspiration in his time here.
He says, “The Yard residency is a perfect laboratory for artists. Coming from New York City into such a peaceful and beautiful environment allowed us to focus on our work, with full use of the dance studio and theater. My best moments are listening to the birds and movements of the wind in the trees. You have a chance for meditation and meeting new goals to break through in the art form.”
Dance: H.T. Chen & Dancers, 8 pm, Friday & Saturday, June 24 & 25. The Yard, Chilmark. 2011 Company-in-Residence. $25; $15 students/seniors. Free family matinee June 25, 4 pm. dancetheyard.org; 508-645-9662.
Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a regular contributor to The Times.