Quirky, Timeless and Human

American Repertory Ballet, Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company and Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company share a bill at the State Theatre.

By: Matt Smith
   Although dubbed Dances From the Garden, the upcoming evening of dance at the State Theatre in New Brunswick will not feature any green-thumbed dancers, carrot-hungry bunnies or a single garden gnome.
   Rather, the title of the March 4 program refers to the bounty of dance talent in the Garden State, most notably a trio of innovative, accomplished outfits — the American Repertory Ballet, Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company and Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company. This marks the second year for the State-organized collaboration, last year called "Dance°."
   New Brunswick-based ARB tops the bill, and is the eldest of the three troupes, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary season, and the 50th anniversary of its affiliate Princeton Ballet School. ARB artistic director Graham Lustig has choreographed a new work, "VISTA," to mark the occasion — it will make its world premiere at the State.
   "These are very significant anniversaries," says Mr. Lustig, "but I didn’t want to make a dramatic piece. This is my hip, cool, fun birthday gift to the organization. It’s a non-narrative, get-up-and-strut-your-stuff kind of dance piece — jazzy, quirky."
   Work on the six-section, 24-minute "VISTA" began the first week of January and was a welcome change for Mr. Lustig and his company after the crush of the ARB’s annual holiday production of The Nutcracker. "And I haven’t made a new piece for the company since 2001," he says, "so it was great to be back in the studio, creating something in there every day."
   "VISTA" features eight ARB dancers — five women and three men — moving to the music of funky jazz outfit The Lounge Lizards. The group’s leader, John Lurie, composed most of the saxophone-heavy music but is not a close personal friend of Mr. Lustig’s.
   "Not at all," he says. "I heard his music on NPR one evening."
   Carolyn Dorfman, founder and artistic director of her 22-year-old Union-based company, drew inspiration for the brand-new work, "Pastoral Pause," from the Celtic-tinged music of composer John Whelan, filtered through a 2003 trip to Yosemite National Park.
   "I was listening to (the pieces) out in Yosemite last summer," says Ms. Dorfman, who premiered "Pastoral Pause" at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison earlier this month, "and I began to shift my thinking about the work, realizing that you need to appreciate both sides of life. There’s that activity, that sense of being driven in an energetic but not intense way, but you have to understand that in relation to the pauses of life, that time when you look and take in the panoramic view, standing on a mountain in Yosemite."
   The five dancers in the 16-minute work dress in costumes of gray, peach and ivory, the colors you find in rock, says Ms. Dorfman. "I was really interested in trying to create the layers of granite I was experiencing in Yosemite," she says.
   "The dancers are part of creating the natural images," Ms. Dorfman continues, "and then it progresses in a way where you begin to see people inside of that natural environment — the various ways they play, they find solitude, they find companionship. For me, even when I start in the most abstract way, it always comes down to a human connection. That’s what my work is about. I have to find a formal metaphor, and then I have to find the human content."
   In addition to "Pastoral Pause," Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company will perform excerpts from the 1996 full-length work, "DANCES/STORIES," featuring storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston. The folktales share themes of understanding and cooperation, beginning with "Silent Debate," about two people who engage in a wordless conversation and go home with drastically different opinions of what was said. The playful "Yam Story" closes the piece.
   "It’s basically a story about a farmer and his wife, a rat and a mouse, a horse and a mule, a pig and a cow," Ms. Dorfman says. "It’s an accumulated story, so lines get repeated but new characters get added. They do something they couldn’t do alone, which is pull up this giant yam… They go on to form a broader community based on commonness rather than differences."
   Founded in 1988, Fort Lee’s Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company is the youngest outfit on the New Brunswick bill but mines the most ancient art forms in its work. The troupe will dance Ms. Chen’s 1995 piece "Calligraphy II," based on the elegant Chinese handwriting style.
   "It’s an old work of mine," says the Taiwan-born dancer/choreographer, "but I always have special feeling for this work. For me, at the time, it was kind of a breakthrough. As a choreographer, you’re always trying to find an original way (to express yourself), and for me, I could be inspired by many different things, but (with that piece) I went back to my roots and tradition to find what’s important.
   "I took Chinese calligraphy as inspiration, created movement vocabulary based on that, created a group-dance composition based on the concept of that, and then created that piece."
   "Calligraphy II" features four female dancers and three male dancers, and music by Joan La Barbara. The set, by Myun Hee Cho, is based on a masterpiece from the Tang Dynasty (circa 618 to 907 A.D.) by Huai-Su called the "Wizard of Chinese Calligraphy." Ms. Chen says the audience will have a visceral response to its beauty which, like dance, crosses many language barriers.
   "You don’t have to understand what’s written there," she says. "Even for Chinese people, it is hard for us to understand because it’s done in such an artistic way and with such freedom that you may not be able to interpret each word. But it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s just art, visual art, with such beauty that it jumps out of the two-dimensional backdrop… That why I think the traditional Chinese art has such value — it’s universal, it’s timeless. The old ways continue on."
   Mr. Lustig, Ms. Dorfman and Ms. Chen each express anticipation for Dances From the Garden, particularly the chance for the audience to encounter another company or two for the first time. "Our shared audiences get to see different types of work," notes Mr. Lustig, "to see the range of our local dance companies."
   Garden gnomes not included, of course.
Dances From the Garden, featuring the American Repertory Ballet, Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company and Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, takes place at the State Theatre, 15 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, March 4, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $25. For information, call (732) 246-7469. On the Web: www.statetheatrenj.org. American Repertory Ballet on the Web: www.arballet.com. Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company on the Web: www.carolyndorfmandanceco.org. Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company on the Web: www.nainichen.org