When Nai-Ni Chen immigrated to America in 1982 to study dance at New York University, she was already an accomplished traditional dancer in Taiwan. She had studied with some of the best teachers and toured professionally.
But Chen wanted to pursue what felt more authentic to her as an immigrant: modern dance, influenced by her traditional Chinese dance background.
After she graduated, Chen stopped auditioning for other choreographers and formed her own troupe, Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, which performs choreography inspired by the intersection of Western and Eastern ideas and philosophies.
Chen's company is performing A Quest for Freedom at the Prince Theater this weekend, accompanied on stage by the accomplished Ahn Trio.
Made up of 10 segments, the performance explores the idea of freedom and how it is shaped by issues like gender and immigration, according to Chen. Although it is largely a Western modern dance performance, Chen said she has incorporated Eastern influences into her choreography in subtle ways.
"In Eastern philosophy, there is a heavy focus on details," she said. "So when I deal with movement, my eyes catch a lot of details. It's not always about the big movements, like with arms and legs. I also focus on the smaller movements, like my dancers' hands."
Chen began collecting ideas that would eventually turn into A Quest for Freedom years ago from her own life as well as from her friends' stories.
She also listened to the Ahn Trio's entire repertoire and worked closely with Juilliard-trained sisters Maria, Lucia, and Angella Ahh, who in 2003 were named three of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People." She described them as immensely talented artists with strong voices.
"That's why I put them on the stage during the performance," Chen said. "A lot of choreographers prefer to have the musicians below or behind the stage, but I didn't want to hide their personalities. The way that they share energy with the dancers is magical."
Choreographing a dance influenced by personal experiences felt like a 24-hour job, Chen said. She thought about it constantly, inside and outside the dance studio.
"It takes a lot of courage to build a new home in a foreign land," Chen said. "In a way, what I'm going through feels like a journey that never ends. My job is to express that to an audience through a universal approach that crosses cultural boundaries, no matter which country you're from or what ethnic background you have."
Audience members should expect a vibrant and colorful performance that explores freedom in an abstract way, Chen said. She prefers experimenting with how she can draw certain emotions out of the audience rather than communicating a story in a linear way, which is more common in traditional forms of dance.
One of the featured segments captures the loneliness of being an immigrant in a big city despite being surrounded by people. Another focuses on how women speak out against male domination.
Chen said she doesn't want audiences "to just walk out of the theater and go home and go to sleep. I want to leave something for them to think about."