She was the eldest child in a middle-class Taiwanese family. Her father was a dentist, and he had a medical career in mind not only for his firstborn but for all of his kids. (Chen's three younger siblings are now doctors.)
"Taiwan is quite conservative," Chen says by phone while en route from her home base in New Jersey to Maryland. "Dance is not a career."
But Chen made sure it became her career. She's had her own troupe, Nai-Ni Chen Dance, going on 20 years. Her choreography, a distinctive blend of traditional Chinese movement and modern dance, has been called "visual poetry." And she's won awards and commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Joyce Theater Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. As part of its regular touring season, the company stops at Centennial Hall for an early-evening concert Sunday.
The show marks the troupe's first-ever performance in Tucson, but Chen has been here on her own. "I love your cactus national park," she says in her flawless English, referring to Saguaro. "I even choreographed a cactus dance."
Chen's work fits neatly into the contemporary trend of choreographers using modern dance to reshape ethnic traditions. Like African-American dancemakers Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson, who retrieve black movement from Africa, the South and the Caribbean, Chen comes up with work shaped by two styles. Her Tucson show offers seven pieces, only two of them--"Peacock Dance" and "Lu-Wen-Long, the Warrior"--purely traditional.
"The movement language blends East and West," she says. "It's not directly taken from Chinese traditional dance, but it has an Asian look."
If the professional expectations for middle-class young people in Taiwan were narrow, the dance training was broad. Chen started lessons at the age of 4, studying Chinese folk and European ballet. And after her momentous decision at 12 to pursue a dance career and intensive training, she got into Chinese Culture University, the equivalent of an American performing arts high school. She spent five years immersing herself in American modern dance, as well as traditional dance and ballet, before moving on to the school's college division.
By 16, she had won a place in Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, a modern performing troupe devoted to Martha Graham technique. But she didn't neglect traditional dance. At 19, courtesy of the Taiwanese government, she toured internationally with a performing arts troupe of 70 traditional dancers and acrobats. Taking time off from college, she danced in 19 countries, and even stepped out on Broadway.
Those international tours "set my steps for the future. I wanted to move on, explore, go out and see the world."
Chen enrolled at New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts to get a master's in dance. But she found that the curriculum focused mostly on modern.
"I'm different. Most dancers here concentrate on one discipline. But my background was broad. I just love dance" of all kinds.
After graduation, she signed on with several choreographers, but ran into the same limitations.
"Any New York choreographer is based in Western disciplines and techniques. It was not fulfilling to me to dance just one style. I have another way to express myself."
Finally concluding that "the only way is to do my own choreography," she founded her own company in 1988. Her troupe of 10 dancers is decidedly international: They hail from the United States, the Czech Republic, Cuba, Canada and China.
"When I audition dancers, I don't choose nationalities. I look for performance qualities and the potential to pick up my movement. Once they join, my movement language will be very new."
Reflecting China's long history and distinct regional cultures, Chinese dance is not monolithic, Chen says. But it tends to be circular in composition, and a dancer's center of gravity is lower than in ballet. Movements can be small and intricate--like the hand movements suggesting birds in "Peacock Dance"--but also athletic, like the gestures of Chinese martial arts.
"Lu-Wen-Long, the Warrior" is a 500-year-old opera dance. Soloist Yao-Zhong Zhang, who trained at a Shanghai opera school, takes the part of a spear-wielding general. He dresses in a traditional feathered headdress, embroidered silk clothing and high platform shoes.
"Peacock Dance," a female solo danced by Min Zhou of China, is a folk dance from tropical Yunnan province in southwest China, where the Dai people consider the peacock a sacred bird. Like Chen, Zhou studied the traditional dance as a child.
The concert opener, "The Way of Five--No. 2," is a more modern work that draws on the Chinese idea that the world has five different energy sources: fire, wood, earth, water, metal. Chen's second shot at the concept, this dance explores fire. Its five performers, dressed in red, dance to drum and cello music from the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Similarly, the duet "River of Dreams" uses modern movement to conjure up a Chinese landscape. Taking the male part, Tai Zhang of China grasps a bamboo pole, seeming to push a boat along a river. The woman, Merryn Kritzinger of Canada, follows.
"It's tranquil and lyrical, a poem about scenery in China," Chen says.
"Raindrops," a work of "modern choreography with a Chinese touch," is a playful dance for four women carrying umbrellas. Based on Chen's childhood memory of playing in the rain, it expresses "homesickness for the past, mixed with joy."
"Unfolding" is based on the Chinese idea that "every little thing on Earth has energy--chi--and evolves. It's a celebration of life, in an abstract way." Danced by four women and three men, the movement is influenced by the Chinese martial art tai chi.
The grand finale, "Festival," danced by the entire company, including Chen, has many traditional elements.
"It's high energy with lots of colorful ribbons, the symbol of prosperity, and blue flags, the symbol of waves of water. Lots of Chinese dances are associated with festivals. In festivals, people come out and celebrate life."
Chen remembers being awed as a child to see dancers emerging from a temple during the summertime Dragon Boat Festival.
"People dressed as gods and goddesses would go through the village and greet people, and then go back to the temple," she says. "The dancers in the piece are like gods and goddesses in procession."