Nai-Ni Chen’s first experience in the United States was as a cultural ambassador. A teenage dancer from Taiwan, she was invited to be a youth representative from China to the U.S. and traveled to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to speak with students. At MIT, her group was welcomed by a student-led club, headed by Andy Chiang, who was also Taiwanese and studying computer science. Andy had lived in the U.S. since he was in high school, but was deeply connected to and influenced by his Chinese heritage. He met Nai-Ni, and the two instantly bonded over their mutual love of Chinese culture.
“Our first conversation was about how great our culture was, and how we believe that there are solutions to today’s problems in ancient wisdom,” Andy said.
According to Andy, that conversation sums up the essence of what would become the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, which they founded together. The organization quickly became an important presence in the dance community as it uniquely blends Chinese traditional and American modern dance styles in original work, and shares traditional Chinese dance through performances and lecture demonstrations with a wide audience around the U.S. and abroad.
That same conversation would also be a foundation for Andy and Nai-Ni’s relationship, one which started as peers and would lead to partners in art, in business, and in love.
“When I first met her,” Andy said, “I just heard this voice—this person—and I had a premonition that this person would be my wife.”
Nai-Ni passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 12th of 2021 while on vacation in Hawaii. She was 62 years old and is survived by her husband, Andy, and daughter Sylvia, among many other relatives in Taiwan. Not long after her death, the company returned to rehearsals at the insistence of her husband in order to continue and further their mission. Currently, the company is in rehearsal for its Chinese New Year performances, some of their biggest of the year, which feature all traditional dance including giant lions and dragons roaming the space, women twirling red umbrellas, and dancers flying across the stage in acrobatic bounds. Like its founder, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company has been a cultural ambassador since its inception.
After her brief trip to MIT, Nai-Ni had other things calling. A dance prodigy, she went back to Taiwan and toured with the prestigious Cloud Gate Dance Theater as the company’s youngest principal member. Finally, when Andy graduated from college, he was able to visit Nai-Ni in Taiwan. It was then that he saw just how remarkable his future-wife really was: Nai-Ni was now studying with the Peking Opera, specializing in traditional warrior dances. She was a favorite of one of the most important instructors and would spend hours studying with him one-on-one.
“He lived on the top floor of a tall building,” Andy said. “Nai-Ni would climb eight flights of stairs to study with him.”
Andy, who had been studying martial arts for a while, as well as taking dance classes in Nai-Ni’s absence (“so I could speak her language”), came to study with her while in Taiwan. He said the traditional Chinese classes were extremely rigorous.
“You would be so sore,” Andy said, describing acrobatic moves and intense stretches that were to be held for 30 minutes at a time. “I was the amateur; she was the professional.”
Though excelling in the Chinese dance scene, Nai-Ni longed to further her studies in the United States. She enrolled at New York University and was introduced to the fascinating world of American modern dance through the mentorship of former Pearl Lang dancer Ellen Tittler, among others. She began taking classes at the Mary Anthony Studios, joined H.T. Chen & Dancers, and got a role in the “King and I” on Broadway. Andy said Mary Anthony was always impressed with Nai-Ni, not just for her dancing but, “because [Mary Anthony] said, as soon as she walked into class, Nai-Ni was already an artist.”
Nai-Ni thrived in New York City as a dancer. Soon, she began to experiment with choreography, entering into a dance festival that was to highlight dancers “from third world countries.” Her piece, “Transcendent,” was reviewed as part of the festival in the New York Times. The review described Nai-Ni as “deft, but with a winning softness” and as “a sensitive and thoughtful choreographer.”
“I said, Nai-Ni, you did pretty good—just keep going,” Andy said.
Displaying a mastery of traditional Chinese work as well as a complex understanding of American modern styles, particularly as a female choreographer, made Nai-Ni attractive to presenters. Soon after her feature in the Times, she began to get calls for lecture demonstrations of her Chinese dance, as well as commissions for choreography. Still mainly working pick-up with friends, in 1988, Andy and Nai-Ni decided to officially start a non-profit dance company. Nai-Ni Chen Dance was born.
All of Nai-Ni’s dances stem from that first conversation that she and Andy ever had, too, he says. They follow the foundation of Chinese philosophy, specifically as it pertains to a deep respect and admiration for nature: “Nature is the root of all inspiration,” he said.
Nai-Ni’s dances also often reflect themes of the immigrant and Asian-American experience. The socially conscious “Dragons on the Wall” from 2001, an interdisciplinary work featuring dancers speaking, moving props, and even painting the floor onstage, is what made Greta Campo realize she wanted to join the company. Greta, who has stepped into the role of Interim Artistic Director since Nai-Ni’s death, joined the company in 2012 after seeing a performance of the evening-length piece.
“I was mesmerized by the work,” she said. “Then, when I first joined, I was amazed by her style. It was so unique because she merged Eastern with Western. There was so much power and grace.”
Greta had no prior Chinese dance training, and she wasn’t the only one: The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company is a multi-cultural company made up of a diverse group of dancers from all over the world who have a range of training. According to Andy, one of Nai-Ni’s biggest accomplishments was her ability to train dancers of different backgrounds in Chinese traditional dance.
Education thus became an equally important part of the company’s mission. Nai-Ni developed her own style called “Kinetic Spiral,” a blend of Chinese and modern dance, which the dancers share through masterclasses when on tour. They annually do a number of lecture demonstrations in public schools around the Northeast and teach classes for students at New Jersey City University in the A. Harry Moore Laboratory School for students with multiple disabilities. Over the pandemic, the company newly created “The Bridge,” a program of free open dance classes in a variety of styles from all over the world.
In addition to training dancers anew, Greta said Nai-Ni had a knack for highlighting the strengths of each individual dancer.
“In the studio, she would always take out the best of dancers,” she said. “She was very human: not bossy, but she could deliver to the dancer what she wanted.“
Andy says Nai-Ni’s confidence in the studio and in multicultural settings was based on a strong awareness of her own culture.
“A lot of Asian-Americans don’t have an Asian identity,” Andy said. “When Nai-Ni arrived, she already had a fully-formed Chinese identity. She was very happy to be an American and was ready to make her contribution.”
This was evident to new dancer Namhui Kim, and part of what inspired her to join the company this past year.
“I always loved being Asian,” Namhui, who is Korean and grew up in Japan, said. “My spirit calls me—I wanted to experience something in dance in my own language.”
Namhui said she appreciated Nai-Ni’s guidance and the fact that even in the role of teacher, she was always dancing, too.
“She was very present,” said Thibaut Witzled from France, who is also new to the company. “There was something natural, complex, and graceful about her dancing. You cannot really learn ‘just like that’—you could see the knowledge and experience behind it.”
While mourning their artistic director’s loss, the company sees an opportunity for Nai-Ni’s work to be renewed and shared more widely.
“It’s a good time to recognize Asian American dancers and all that she did,” Namhui said.
“We certainly are not interested in having the work sit in a library somewhere—no matter how high the resolution,” Andy said. “To build up a company like this is very difficult; to abandon it is very easy, but it would not be the right thing to do.”
Currently, the company has performances scheduled in Washington and Colorado, and will present a new work at New York Live Arts in March.
“When I met her, for some reason I knew she was going to be my wife,” Andy reiterated. “She didn’t know it; but the first time I saw her, I knew there was a mission—I needed to be with her. If there’s a story here, it started with that first conversation—that the ancient wisdom influences the world. All [we] have to do is find the wisdom and believe it—it’s in Nai-Ni’s dances.”