By Stephanie Meditz
On Feb. 5 at 3 p.m., Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company will ring in the new year at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts in Flushing.
Although the company has celebrated Lunar New Year in Queens for over a decade, this year’s performance is special — 2023 marks both the year of the water rabbit and the 50th anniversary of hip-hop dance.
In addition to its signature blend of contemporary dance and traditional Chinese dance, the company integrates hip-hop into this year’s routines.
Choreographer and Director of New and Contemporary Dance PeiJu Chien-Pott collaborated with hip-hop legends Kwikstep and Rokafella on a modernized Lion Dance.
“A traditional Lion Dance will also be included in the program, but this year, it’s a new Lion Dance…the Lion is dancing with hip-hop beats composed by DJ Kwikstep, a legendary hip-hop artist,” she said. “Two dancers will be wearing a traditional lion costume, a lion head, cape and pants. Visual-wise, it’s a lion, but movement-wise, it’s hip-hop movement with traditional steps. It’s a combination of both…we’re really looking forward to the premiere.”
This collaboration was new territory for Chien-Pott, who is trained in classical ballet and was a principal dancer for the Martha Graham Dance Company for eight years.
“I was putting myself in a completely new zone…not only to try something new but also to stimulate myself to expand my movement vocabulary, artistic-wise,” she said, “It’s a collaborative effort, we respect each other. I respect their expertise in hip-hop and they respect my expertise in the contemporary dance field…At the same time, I try very hard not to lose the traditional Lion Dance form…It’s constantly finding a perfect balance to fit into three areas: hip-hop, modern dance and traditional Chinese form.”
The company will also perform celebratory routines with vibrant costumes, such as YungHe (Harvest Song), a Peacock Dance and a traditional Dragon Dance, its signature work.
“We kept the tradition of the signature repertory, including a Dragon Dance, the Coin Dance and also some other signature works of Nai-Ni Chen,” Chien-Pott said. “But also, through years of her development, creativity-wise, each year we added one or two contemporary repertoires that she created in recent years. So each year, there’s at least one or two premieres of new works or new collaborations with different artists.”
In addition to the hip-hop twist on the Lion Dance, this year’s celebration will feature a work entitled “Dragon Cipher,” that Nai-Ni Chen began to develop in 2017.
The cast consists of three hip-hop dancers and four company members who specialize in its blend of contemporary and traditional Chinese dance.
“This work is a perfect marriage to combine Chinese contemporary dance and hip-hop dance movement,” Chien-Pott said. “Other than the movement itself, it expresses the East and West culture embracing each other to form a unity.”
This year celebrates the year of the rabbit in the Chinese zodiac, which is a symbol of abundance.
“The rabbit is considered gentle, kind and peaceful, but the rabbit also can move very fast,” Chien-Pott said. “The storyline is that the emperor announces that whoever can attend his birthday first will be the first zodiac sign. The rabbit was arriving first, but no other animals were there before him, so he was waiting and fell asleep. The rat, ox and tiger were literally arriving at the emperor’s birthday party when the rabbit woke up.”
This tale explains why the rabbit is the fourth sign of the zodiac.
Other performances will include two instrumental pieces by The Chinese Music Ensemble of New York.
“Queens has a lot of Chinese community, especially Flushing. Other than Canal St. in Manhattan, Flushing is the second biggest Chinese community, particularly in Queens,” she said.
Tickets for the performance are available for $15 at https://kupferbergcenter.org/event/lunar-new-year-of-the-water-rabbit/.