Nai Ni Chen Dragons on the Wall

Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, New York City
May 14, 2011

A Review

How does one begin? Well, we sat maybe 15 minutes looking at the stage, which has a not-so-clean, double king-size sheet hung high in the middle of it. (Dance Theater Workshop does not provide a house drop,

Dragons on the Wall ~ Photo by Kokyat
but certainly it has the means to provide “atmosphere” before the dance begins!) The announcement was barely audible, but we were forewarned: one dancer broke his wrist and will appear with a cast thereon.

The dance begins: Dancers gather beneath that hanging sheet, which (inevitably) descends, covering them. Unfortunately, the choreographer really hasn't a clue as to what to do with the ten persons beneath the sheet, so they bat their way out from under it.

Then we are treated for the first of many, many sequences of time-honored (worn?) movements right out of the classical modern dance. I am wakened by the sight of a yellow chair ceremoniously entering from up right. But except for that dignified entrance, it did little but support more modern stuff.

Then a ream of 8½" x 11" paper drifts down from the “heavens.” (Of course, we realize that this is all about the discovery of writing, and heaven will provide the supplies.) The sheet is removed, not very ceremoniously, only to come back briefly later in the dance for some inscrutable reason. The papers are eventually swept up (for practical reasons) in a simple, choreographed manner. Giant Chinese characters are projected from heaven onto the stage floor. They disappear, only to present themselves again and again. (This is a ballet about writing coming from heaven.)

Jung Hm Jo ~ Photo by Kokyat

“Four rivers” flow across from stage right to stage left—four rolls of white cloth unrolled by four male dancers lying on their backs on the cloth, wriggling forward as they pushed the rolls with their heads. I liked them and wished them well. And in the midst of all this we had duets and a trio, quartets and solos. Almost all of them could have been composed and danced by 1960s modern dance students, determined to be tragic. One solo was unique, however; Jung Hm Jo performed in a square down stage right—and he done good! Then there was a dance sequence starting from images projected on the cyclorama. Nai Ni Chen really reached for an epic that encompassed every dance theater trick. And it had a great ending! The dancers spread a tarp on to the stage with eight decorative tubs of black ink. They proceeded with large rags to write nonsense all over the tarp (and themselves). One grand romp!!

Seriously though, Nai Ni does have a large idea. And I know she and her company have worked long and hard to bring it to performance. The overall “book” is really magnificent when one contemplates the art of writing as being a gift from heaven. Here and there are happenings that catch the eye and mind. But—she needs to ask her dancers to invent motion that matches the theme. She needs to ask her lighting designers to paint the stage with the images that I feel must be in her mind. The music neither impressed nor intruded, and perhaps that is good (did I even hear it?). Above all she must dare to demand that the work presents her vision.

—Ruth Grauert, May 14, 2011