Featured Organization: Chen Dance Center
NEW FEATURE FROM THE CON EDISON IMMIGRANT ARTIST NEWSLETTER NO. 64
This month IAP highlights the Chen Dance Center (CDC), which is comprised of a company, school, and theater serving the Lower East Side/Chinatown community as well as New York City dancers and audiences. Since its inception in 1978, CDC has become the nation’s largest Asian American performing arts institution, distinguished for creating a uniquely Asian American expression embodying its cultural heritage. The Company performs a diverse repertoire of works that are a dynamic fusion of the spirited energy of Western modern dance and the poise of traditional and contemporary Asian aesthetics. Under the direction of Artistic Director, H.T. Chen, the multicultural company has received critical acclaim for its national and international touring, its extended residencies in communities throughout the U.S., its annual New York performance seasons, and its award-winning educational program for children.
IAP interviewed H.T. Chen, Artistic Director/Founder, and Dian Dong, Associate Director/Education Director, to find out more about the organization’s work and values as a leading Asian American arts institution.
NYFA: What are the most important considerations for you when adopting Asian cultural components into choreography?
HC: Modern dance is artistic expression even in its most abstract form. Naturally, I used my Asian American cultural background to inform the content of the productions I choreograph.
NYFA: Your troupe has artists from very diverse backgrounds. Is it difficult to reach a consensus on some issues? How do your internal communications function?
HC: Basically, I use movement as my language. Our troupe communicates through this naturally understood language so it’s fairly easy to communicate. Dance is a universal language that can communicate across multiple cultural backgrounds. In the summer for several years I worked with an African American dance troupe and we started to research the similarities in our cultures, to learn off each other. We focused in on one element, the “fan”, which we found existed in both cultures, in China, to fend off the heat and in Africa to fend off the mosquitoes. American culture is like a mosaic: so many colors make a beautiful picture, one color makes no picture.
NYFA: Chen Dance Center is located in the heart of Chinatown, how does the company engage the local community? Do you design specific programs to serve their needs?
HC: When I came to Chinatown I didn’t find many professional dance companies, my commitment is to encourage arts in the community.
DD: Chen Dance Center’s school offers year round classes in music and dance to community children, as well as 24 weeks of free after-school dance training at one of the Chinatown schools.
We see our outreach as “in-reach:” building our arts community from within.
NYFA: Currently H.T. Chen & Dancers is working on a new production titled South of Gold Mountain based on the Chinese who settled in segregated communities in the Southern states before World War II. Research and development over the past three years included oral histories, site visits to Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas. Isolated in rural communities, the Chinese families learned to survive by holding onto their cultural traditions and by being invisible. The completed work will tour the Southern states this Spring. What inspired your organization to start this journey? Were there any surprises or key moments that informed the final production?
HC: I started learning more about the history of Chinese immigration, why and when they came to the United States discovering that in the South , such as Mississippi, there was early migration. I went out to visit and speak with elders, learning a great deal about the discrimination that took place. I spoke with a gentleman who fought in World War II as a Flying Tiger in the air force. Many Chinese served in the US Army and Air Force but it was only after WWII that America acknowledged the value of the Chinese contribution. This was a transitional moment when the Chinese won the right to vote. Generally difficult history is not discussed, people don’t want to talk about it so the stories are forgotten and this production is a way of bringing these stories back to life.
DD: I am a 5th generation Asian American and for me the journey was very special. We were not told of our ancestor’s hardships in the states because our elders did not want to talk about these matters. The Chinese in America fought in the Civil War, World War I, as well as World War II. In the southern states, many people converted to Christianity because the church accepted the Chinese and founded mission schools to educate their children.
NYFA: How can our audience connect with you and follow your activities? Are there any upcoming opportunities that artists can apply for?
DD: Chen Dance Center has a great many activities, from school programs, education and dance productions. You can visit our website and subscribe to our mailing list.
For artists, the Newsteps series is held twice a year. Artists who auditioned this Fall, will be presented on January 15-17 at 7:30 PM at Chen Dance Center. On Tues, January 6th at 12 PM, we have an open Call-In for choreographers for the May 7-9 performances. Chen Dance Center is located at 70 Mulberry St, 2nd floor, New York, NY 10013.
H.T. Chen (Artistic Director) has choreographed for theater and dance productions, and his company has created a body of work that gives poetic voice to Asians in America. He has created and performed over 40 works in over 100 cities and festivals in the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Germany. He is Artistic Director/Founder of H.T. Chen & Dancers and Chen Dance Center – School and Theater in NYC. The Theater supports dance artists through commissions, showcase opportunities and space grants. The School provides instruction and training in dance and music to hundreds of community children in Chinatown, NY. Born in Shanghai, China and raised in Taiwan, H.T. Chen is a graduate of the University of Chinese Culture, The Juilliard School, and New York University’s Dept of Dance Professions, where he received his Masters Degree in Dance Education. He is the recipient of the 2012 Martha Hill Dance Fund Award, a 2009 Mayor’s Award for Arts & Culture, a 2005 Bessies Special Citation, and 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Organization of Chinese Americans.
Dian Dong (Associate Director/Education Director) performed with the company for many years, and in 1998 took on a greater management role with the organization. In 2005 she attended the Executive Program for Non-Profit Leaders-ARTS at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Ms. Dong participated in the Kennedy Center’s Capacity Building Program, led by Michael Kaiser since 2003, and most recently, helped lead Chen Dance Center through a series of expansion and renovation projects.
In the capacity of Education Director, she organizes and designs the education programs for CDC’s award-winning home based and residency programs. Each year, the company works with over 5,000 young audiences through performances and workshops. Each week, the Chen Dance Center School provides over 200 community children with classes in dance and music, and another 250 children are served off-site throughout New York City. A graduate of The Juilliard School, Ms. Dong is the recipient of the 2012 Martha Hill Dance Fund Award, and a 2005 Bessies Special Citation.
Our thanks to Judy Cai, Program Associate, Asian Affairs for her contribution to this month’s article.
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Images, from top: Between Heaven and Earth, a collaboration with Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Photo Credit: Chen Dance Center; Studio Photos by Vladislav Levitsky.