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Nai-Ni Chen, Whose Dances Merged East and West, Dies at 62


Nai-Ni Chen, a dancer and choreographer whose Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company has merged traditional Chinese and contemporary influences in performances all over the United States as well as overseas for three decades, died on Sunday in a swimming accident while vacationing in Hawaii. She was 62.

The incident occurred off Kailua Beach in Oahu. Her husband and partner in the company, Andrew N. Chiang, in a posting on the company’s Facebook page, said that Ms. Chen went for a swim in the ocean and that her body was found by a passer-by.

Ms. Chen was born in Taiwan and came to the United States in 1982, planning to earn a master’s degree at New York University (which she eventually did) and then return to her home country to teach. But the arts scene in New York proved irresistible.

“I was so excited about the dancing in New York that I decided to stay rather than teach in Taiwan,” she told The TimesLedger of Queens in 2017.

Six years later, she and Mr. Chiang started the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, which began performing in and around New York from its headquarters in Fort Lee, N.J. By the early 1990s, its touring circle had begun expanding, first to Massachusetts, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and then across the country and beyond.

Ms. Chen had been trained in the traditional dances of Taiwan and China before settling in the United States, and her programs tended to give audience members — many of whom, especially in the early years, were used to European-style dance — a different view of the art form.

“I like to integrate both aesthetics, Eastern and Western,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. “My dancers and I experiment every day. I believe that if I let movement come out naturally from my body, if I speak the truth from my heart, it will express my background — traditional Chinese movement and a Western dance vocabulary.”

The company performed traditional fan dances and ribbon dances, but also Ms. Chen’s own works, which drew on many influences. Her “Movable Figures,” for example, was inspired by Southeast Asian shadow puppetry. “Dragons on the Wall (Tianji)” suggests Chinese calligraphy. “Raindrops” evokes her girlhood in Taiwan.

“I remember as a child I would sit in my grandmother’s room and see the raindrops falling on the ground,” she told The Record of Bergen County, N.J., in 2003, when the work was on her program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, a frequent stop for the troupe. “It made such an interesting sound — dut-dut-dut. It was very playful to me. Mysterious. It brought me wonder.”

Nai-Ni Chen was born on Oct. 31, 1959, in Keelung, on the coast near Taipei, to MayYun Wu, a teacher, and Hsing-Yin Chen, a dentist.

“My parents always took us out to get close to nature, the ocean, the beach and the mountains,” she told The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1996, when her company performed in Fayetteville.

“Many of my dances are inspired by nature,” she added. “That’s the Chinese way and philosophy: to emphasize the relation between human and nature. We try to find a harmony there.”

Greta Campo, a dancer and the company’s associate artistic director, experienced firsthand how Ms. Chen blended the various influences in her life and training.

“Her cultural background was always an inspiration for her,” she said by email. “Nai-Ni Chen’s works are so unique because they fused the freedom of American modern dance with the grace and splendor of Asian art.”

Ms. Chen was exposed to American culture growing up in Taiwan, learning English as a second language and, as she told The Record in 1988, watching the movies of “those two men — the fat one and the thin one who were always getting in trouble.” That is, Laurel and Hardy.

She began taking dance lessons at 4 and learned ballet and folk dance before enrolling, in her early teens, at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei, whose curriculum included modern dance, jazz and Chinese martial arts.

She spent three years with the Cloud Gate Dance Theater, Taipei’s first contemporary dance company, and participated in several government-sponsored international tours. Mr. Chiang, who is Nai-Ni Chen Dance’s executive director, told The Star-Ledger in 1999 that he first met his future wife in 1978, when she was among a group of visiting dancers who performed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; he was enrolled there and was the student activities coordinator.

“At that first moment, I knew she was going to be my wife,” he told the newspaper, although Ms. Chen said she only vaguely remembered their initial backstage encounter. The two stayed in touch, and they married in 1982. Their daughter, Sylvia, also survives her.

Ms. Chen’s dance company often performed at schools, where in the early years students generally had little exposure to Chinese arts.

“The kids just love it,” she told The Record in 1992. “Chinese dance is very colorful, and it’s completely new to them.”

She was particularly concerned with putting across the influence of Asian culture and Asian American immigrants on Western traditions. Yet it was a point of pride to her that her troupe was multiracial and multinational. Finding dancers who could handle the demands of blending the traditional and contemporary was, she acknowledged, challenging, but she thought the effort was worthwhile.

“I feel positive because in the end, the message we are trying to convey to people has everything to do with sharing cultures in this smaller and smaller modern world,” she told The Star-Ledger in 1996. “People are interested, but there’s still a long way to go. It takes a certain kind of maturity to find something good in another, completely different and very foreign culture.”



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