(photo: Vanessa Gonzalez-Bunster)
In 2013, I interviewed dancer-choreographer Jessica Chen (J Chen Project) a little over a year since a near-fatal car accident left her with injuries so severe that she needed surgery and spent two weeks in a medically-induced coma. (Read Unbreakable Spirit: dancer Jessica Chen--here). Towards the end of that Q&A, I asked Chen, "What is the absolutely most important thing that people should know about you?" She told me, "I am a fighter, and I am a rebel." She said the hospital had to strap her down and place an alarm on her bed because she'd once tried to leave. That's the artist you see today in her suite of dances, Never Was Broken: a dance through life and death and life, running now at Ailey Citigroup Theater.
(photo courtesy of the artist)
Chen combines this toughness with a sense of spirituality and gratitude infusing every aspect of her program. The evening begins with a "pre-show invocation installation" on a stage strewn with votive candles and lissome, swirly dancers as, over an instrumental track from Sade, vocalist Enrico Rodriguez sings of the desire to "focus my energies to heal my body/fill my mind with beautiful images and sounds." In this song, forgiveness is called "the healer of hearts." Dances that follow bear titles like Let Us Pray, No (evil), Leap of Faith and Amen--this last one set to a reading of The Lord's Prayer. Program notes express Chen's articles of faith on art and life itself. At no point, though, does any of this seem overly pious or overbearing. It's a sharing she handles with grace, and the gutsiness of her choreographic voice helps to balance things out.
Under Alan Edwards's dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, Chen's movement ideas flow and ebb and flow again with the wild force and sinuosity of ocean waves. Dancers, when connecting with others, resemble nerves firing impulses and influence across synapses. These abstract interactions, always searching and inventive, suggest an entire system illustrated across the stage--one brain, one body--healthfully proceeding with its work. In Chen, I recognize a desire for beauty--her version of tikkun olam, to make connections and make sense of the world through movement.
The most eye-opening work on this program, though, travels a dark space. It's Training the Devil, a piece Chen co-choreographed with Chien-Hao Chang. The piece explores the volatile nature of a relationship between lovers apparently equal in strength and bullheadedness. Chen makes a fascinating match with her partner and mirror Sandy Shelton, a whirlwind. Even without knowledge of Chen's backstory, one would be impressed with the confidence and tenacity of this artist in body, mind and spirit.
Performers: Jessica Aronoff, Flannery Houston, Sandy Shelton, Rafael Sanchez, Yasmin Schoenmann and Cole Mills with vocalist Enrico Rodriguez
Guest choreographers: Norbert de la Cruz III, Nicole Smith and Chien-Hao Chang
Never Was Broken concludes this evening with a performance at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.
Ailey Citigroup Theater
405 West 55th Street (at 9th Avenue), Manhattan