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H.T. Chen Proves to be a Constant Gardener

In The Company News

By Steve Sucato

Choreographer, performer and arts advocate H.T. (Hsueh- Tung) Chen sees the arts as an essential component for building communities. Ever since his arrival in the United States in 1971 and forming his H.T. Chen & Dancers dance company in 1978, Chen has strived to do more with the arts than just produce dance performances. In his Chinatown community in New York City, Chen started the Arts Gate Center, a year-round performing arts school, as well as the Mulberry Street Theater, Chinatown’s first performing arts center.

WHO: H. T. Chen and Dancers
WHEN: 8 p. m. Saturday
WHERE: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts
TICKETS: $ 18, $ 10 students
INFO: 645- ARTS or http://www.ubcfa.org

“I think a good analogy for H.T. is that he is a gardener, literally and figuratively,” says wife and company associate director Dian Dong. “He not only works in community gardens and started a rooftop garden outside of our studios, he thinks of art like gardening, planting the seeds of art wherever he goes so that there will be art for generations to come.”

Chen’s gardening philosophy extends to the company’s touring as well, preferring for his company to do teaching residencies in addition to mainstage performances. Such is the case in Western New York, where the company has been in residence at the University at Buffalo since March 18, teaching master classes at the college and performing lecture demonstrations at a number of area schools in advance of a Saturday night performance in UB’s Center for the Arts.

Known for a movement style that incorporates modern dance, martial arts movements and traditional Chinese dance, Chen’s dance works fuse Asian and American cultures into something he feels is a more organic product rather than just sticking to one style to produce his works. Over the company’s 30-year history, that fusion has developed into a signature movement style for Chen. But like painter Pablo Picasso, Chen says he has constantly challenged himself to alter that style throughout his career.

During the company’s 90-minute program at UB on Saturday, those in attendance will see three examples of Chen’s choreographic style in excerpts from his 2005 work “Heart of Grace,” his latest creation, “Big Brother” (2007) - both performed by Chen’s 13-member company - and “The Big Ha,” a section from Chen’s full-length work “Apple Dreams” (2007), performed by student dancers from UB’s Department of Theatre and Dance.

Based on the traditional Chinese lion line dance and set to a commissioned score by composers Bradley Kaus and Cao Bao An, “Heart of Grace” blends traditional and contemporary dance movement “to create a commentary on conflict in today’s world,” according to Chen. The work does not, apart from a few stripped-down lion heads, put the dancers in traditional lion dance mask and costume. Instead, the dancers rely on their movement to portray the characteristics of a lion, from ferocious to majestic.

Along similar lines, “Big Brother” is a dark-but-tongue-in-cheek social commentary on individual privacy. Like author George Orwell’s “Big Brother,” Chen was inspired by what he sees as a disturbing trend toward electronic surveillance in the United States. His contemporary dance work doesn’t follow a particular storyline. Rather, Dong says that like an art installation using a series of images on individual panels, the parts make up a related whole. “Big Brother” is danced to beat-inspired poetry by Peter Gregutt, with music from composers Stewart Wallace and Yukio Tsuji.

The program’s remaining work, “The Big Ha,” refers to the vocalizations martial arts practitioners make when throwing kicks and punches. Set to a commissioned score by Fitz Patton, 14 of UB’s student dancers get to stretch their vocal muscles as well as those in their limbs in the work, which explores themes of struggle.

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