ht chen

May 8, 2009

(Excerpt from article on al.com by Michael Huebner)

Notions about Chinese dance often gravitate toward martial arts groups such as Shaolin Warriors or the highflying circus acts of companies like the Peking Acrobats. Both of those companies have had tour stops in Birmingham in recent years.

But a New York dance troupe has planted a seed that is more in line with contemporary Chinese diaspora.

Choreographer H.T. Chen has been bridging east and west for decades, and has established his H.T. Chen & Dancers as a hybrid of western modern and traditional Chinese dance. Taking elements of tradition, such as the Lion Dance, and fusing them with modern sensibilities, his aim is to establish a unique aesthetic, which he has conveyed to his 12-member troupe. Comprised of seven Chinese or Chinese-Americans, three Japanese and two Americans, the company will relay Chen's multicultural vision in performances Friday and Saturday at the Alys Stephens Center.

medium Chen 329.JPG"Good art is good art, no matter if it's east or west," Chen said recently from his studio in New York's Chinatown. "Finding the right dancers is very important, their body movements, their individual movement vocabulary."

Chen Dancer's in "Heart of Grace"

In "Heart of Grace," one of the works on next week's program, the Lion Dance is infused with tradition, then stripped of it.

"You will see elements of the Lion Dance technique," said Dian Dong, Chen's wife and the troupe's associate artistic director. The research was done in Taiwan. You have to perch on top of some­one's head, and do over-the-shoulder lifts. For the lion head itself, we take off the papier-mache to the bamboo frame, so you ac­tually see inside the frame. The traditional element is there, but it's a little differ­ent. You recognize the tradition and see the contemporary."

Another work on the program, "Between Heaven and Earth," is a series of dances set to the music of Chinese-American composers Chen Yi and Zhou Long, both of whom merge Chinese folk melody and instrumental color with contemporary Western styles. It was pre­miered in March, with the Orchestra of St. Lukes per­forming.

"We have worked together with both composers for the past two years, so it's not a first-time collaboration," Chen said.

Also during its five-day residency in Birmingham, the dancers will give workshops at Birmingham-Southern College and the University of Montevallo, as well as a "Meet the Art­ist" performance for middle and high school students Thursday morning at the Stephens Center.

"H.T. has always been influenced by Chinese calligraphy in his choreography," said Dong, "Often there are words or poetic phrases hidden inside the movements. We reveal those and demystify the choreography for the students, at the same time giving a mini-introduction to Chinese written language."

Students may also hear about Chinese labor and immigration during the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century.

"They will learn stories that were not in the history books because they were omitted," said Dong. "These are all based on true stories from different historical societies."

The residency is a fundraiser for the Birmingham Chinese Garden and Asian Cultural Foundation, which hopes to build an 8-to-10 acre classical garden and center in Birmingham. A model of the proposed garden will be on display at a reception for Chen following Friday's performance.

"We're excited to help kick off the efforts to move forward in this plan," said Dong. "The Chinese have been in the South for a long time. For an institution to emerge and blossom in the community is a historic event. We're glad to be a part of it."

Michael Huebner is fine arts writer and classical music critic. E-mail him at mhuebner@bham­news.com. Blog: blog.al.com/mhuebner