Collaborating is key to choreographer Nai-Ni Chen, whose company will work with the Ahn Trio in their debut on Saturday at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
“Using live musicians is totally different than working with tape,” Chen said. “Musicians are wonderful. You feel an integration and magic. It’s spontaneous and not fixed.”
Chen is bringing seven of the 11 dancers from her Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company to perform “Temptation of the Muses” — a dance that they and the Ahns have been touring since it premiered in December 2010 at the Harlem School of the Arts Theater in New York City.
Although Chen has worked with live music before — most notably with the Turtle Island String Quartet — that relationship has not always been possible. Chen had been a renowned traditional dancer in the Republic of China and visited as many as 19 countries as a cultural ambassador and was an early member of the Cloud Gate Dance Theater in Taiwan before she immigrated to the United States and founded her own company in 1988.
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company and the Ahn Trio
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second St., Troy
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $34, $29, $25, $15; children and students get $5 discount
MORE INFO: 273-0038, www.troymusichall.org
This performance is part of a hall initiative called Dance at the Hall. Ticket-holders can attend “Temptation of the Muses” and Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company’s “Synesthesia” for $40.
Over the next several years, she created a varied repertory of dances inspired by Chinese folk rituals, ceremonies and art that fused with the movements of American modern dance. Numerous commissions came from theaters and foundations such as the Joyce Theater Foundation and the Lincoln Center Institute and dance companies in Ohio and New Jersey. Her company received several awards for excellence, including the prestigious Golden Lotus Award given in Yunan, China.
‘Sort of like a marriage’
For most of these dances, Chen created the movement first and then went looking for the music.
“I don’t want to have the restrictions of the music. I look for music that will support my ideas,” she said. “Many came from American roots music. It’s sort of like a marriage.”
To get ideas for her dances, Chen said she reads a lot of poetry. One by Latif Nazemi called “A Word for Freedom” especially touched her. She also began thinking about water, which she said she finds mysterious and somehow equates with freedom. With these concepts in mind, she decided it would be easier and more exciting to have some of the dance done to an original work with live musicians than to try to find something on tape.
Chen turned to Kenji Bunch, a composer she’d known for years, to write about 10 minutes of music and shared her ideas with him, she said. Costumes for the dance would be easy to create as she has a long-time costume designer, Anna-Alisa Belous. But who would play the music? She was in luck when Bunch told her he often worked with the Ahn Trio.
The Ahns are three sisters: violinist Angella and the twins — pianist Lucia and cellist Maria. Internationally famous over the past 20 years for their virtuosity and fashionable photographic appeal — they’ve been featured in Vogue, GQ and ads for Gap — the trio is equally known for its genre-crossing projects. Those have included working with alternative rock band Tata Bojs in tours through the Czech Republic, vocalists from Susie Suh to DJ Spooky, dancers such as the David Parsons Dance Company and new music by a broad range of composers from Pat Metheny and David Bowie to Michael Nyman and Eric Ewazen.
In a typical year that involves more than 100 concerts, they’ve performed at places as divergent as the White House (2011) and countless schools including a performance last March at Hudson Valley Community College, given master classes and made six discs, the most recent being “Lullaby for my Favorite Insomniac” (Sony).
“We’ve been collaborating ever since the beginning,” Angella Ahn said. “It’s so inspiring, . . . totally different worlds and disciplines. And we love the audiences, . . . thinking nontraditional. It’s way more free. And Kenji is one of our longest partners. We met him at Juilliard. He’s a big, large, inspiring presence in our lives.”
When Chen asked them if they’d be interested in playing Bunch’s new piece, she said they were thrilled.
“He’s a perfect choice for a whole effort,” she said. “Kenji’s music is emotional, passionate. It tells a story. It’s like a film score, . . . beautiful. It projects movement. It’s lyrical, percussive, playful, smart music.”
Changing her method
While everyone waited for the score, the Ahns suggested other composers Chen should listen to. She chose music by Metheny, David Balakrishnan and Ronn Yedidia.
“I branched out from my usual method and made the music come first,” Chen said. “Although the Asian element is still there in my dances, listening gave me a feeling of looking at a beautiful landscape from dawn to sundown. Each piece was like a different human experience.”
When Bunch’s score finally arrived, the Ahns made a tape of everything so the dancers could rehearse on their own. For the performance, Chen included the Ahns in how she visualized the dance spatially and on stage.
“It’s kind of fun,” Ahn said. “Nai-Ni has encouraged the dancers to play with us — a look or a contact. It’s a great relationship. It’s not just dance and music separately.”
Every performance is a challenge.
“They practiced with a recording and they need a magic and energy and we must be very strict and keep it the same tempo,” Ahn said. “We’re trying so hard to be exact because a different nuance can mess up the dancers. We must remember how we did it on the tape. We’re people, we’re not robots. So it’s a challenge.”
Since the premiere, however, the dance has changed. Chen has added more dance movement to the music even as the dancers have adjusted to more nuance or slight variations in the speed.
“The surprises are positive. They are organic effects,” Chen said. “It’s magic.”