State of the Arts


State of the Arts: Seven Choreographers

Seven award-winning choreographers from New Jersey reveal new work, from filmic explorations to traditional Kathak dance, presented by the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC). Nai-Ni Chen, Tsai Hsi Hung, Dare Ayorinde, Erin Carlisle Norton, Pallavi Degwekar Shaikh, Barkha Patel, and Robert Mark Burke describe the challenges of creating during the year of Covid.

AIRED: May 15, 2021 | 0:26:46

Narrator: Dance relies on the physical presence of people

together in the same room.

Tough during a long year of social distancing

and canceled performances.

Yet choreographers continued to create new work.

Chen: But we keep going, keep going.

It just -- We have -- Everyone has a mission

and a sense of responsibility.

As artists, what can we do?

Narrator: In early 2021, seven choreographers

came to the South Orange Performing Arts Center, SOPAC.

Here, they shared new works for a virtual showcase

called "Capturing the Moment."


Barkha Patel, Nai-Ni Chen,

Erin Carlisle Norton,

Dare Ayorinde, Tsai Hsi Hung,

Pallavi Degwekar Shaikh, Robert Mark Burke --

All are winners of choreography fellowships

from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

The honor and the cash

was especially meaningful during a difficult year.

Burke: This fellowship was really, like, the first time

I was receiving a substantial amount of money

for work that I love doing.

And the biggest way that that kind of changed

everything was, I was finally able to pay my dancers

something that I felt proud to say I could pay.


Narrator: On this special edition of "State of the Arts,"

meet seven of the most creative choreographers in New Jersey.


Announcer: The New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

encouraging excellence and engagement in the arts

since 1966,

is proud to co-produce "State of the Arts"

with Stockton University.

Additional support is provided

by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

and these friends of "State of the Arts."


Chen: Doing this and this. Right, two of you.

Yeah, over here.

So you have a ta-ta!

Yeah, reaching. So I know you start with different movements.

Narrator: Originally from Taiwan,

choreographer Nai-Ni Chen

has led her own modern dance company

in the United States for over 30 years,

creating work honored by multiple fellowships

from the National Endowment for the Arts

and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Some of her pieces draw from her heritage.

She was trained in traditional Chinese dance and theater.


In other works, Nai-Ni focuses on contemporary

social themes such as isolation or the quest for freedom.


During the pandemic,

Nai-Ni began working on a new piece over Zoom.

Chen: Going to go out to second position.

Narrator: After a few months,

the company transitioned to rehearsing in person,

and in 2021, "Shadow Force" premiered in a virtual showcase

presented by the South Orange Performing Arts Center.


Chen: I create a spotlight to light each dancer,

to fight with them on-stage.

Woman: The sky before sunrise is soaked with light.

Chen: My thinking was, "During the quarantine,

we cannot go out.

We're all, like, locked in during the early pandemic time,

but we all had this desire and yearning

to connect with one another." So that's why I have the space

designed that way to be very restricted.

Had then each one in their spacial spotlight,

Woman: The bygone lives are like my own past life --


Chen: Space is very magical on-stage.

When you design it well,

you can deliver the idea of isolation

or create a different world,

a three-dimensional space or five different worlds.






Narrator: Nai-Ni premiered a second piece, as well.

"Luminescence" was inspired by a trip

she made to an aquarium.

Chen: The most striking thing and memorable experience

was, I see a collection of all different species of jellyfish.

They are wonder. They are like another world.

Really mesmerizing when you watch them move.

Then you realize the human,

we are just one of the living things on Earth.

We are not the whole world, okay?

Sometimes we are so like, "Okay, we are the best.

We control everything." But God created us.

We coexist with other living things.

You know, we need respect.

And so it also made me think about environment protection.

We really should show respect to all life-forms on Earth

and then protect every living thing on Earth.




Narrator: Kathak is a form of Indian classical dance

very much alive in the Indian diaspora,

including in New Jersey.

Pallavi Degwekar Shaikh began studying Kathak at age 10,

inspired by her father and grandfather,

both prominent musicians.

Pallavi now creates transcendent new works true

to the spiritual roots of Kathak,

as in this invocation to Lord Shiva,

the Supreme Lord who creates,

protects, and transforms the universe.

[ Man vocalizing ]



Degwekar Shaikh: Being Shiva, he is always incanted

with the words "Om Navah Shivaya."

So "Na," "Ma," "Si," "Va," "Ya" are the five letters.

"Na," "Ma," "Si," "Va," "Ya."

So these are the five holy letters.

And these are not just five holy letters,

but they also represent the five elements of this cosmos

and also which are constituted in the human bodies.

So Na sanctifies earth. Ma courses through water.

Si is invigorated with fire. Va represents air.

And finally Ya is emboldened with the sky.

So all these five elements are, of course --

We say the origin is Lord Shiva.

That is what is believed.

[ Man vocalizing ]


Narrator: Kathak is a storytelling dance,

but the dedication to the form is in itself an act of devotion,

requiring years of guidance and practice.

Degwekar Shaikh: We call it Riyaz.

Riyaz means the practice, the Sadhana,

the devotion for your art form.

So if -- For example, I usually practice for hours every day.

Sometimes if I am running around,

there is no time. Then that is the time I skip.

But I make sure that I do practice.

You know, that is my Riyaz, and that is where the chakras

or the inner energies are rejuvenated.

[ Man vocalizing ]

When I do my Riyaz in my basement,

I'm completely detached with the outside world.

I forget I have a daughter, I am married,

I need to do groceries,

I need to go do my classes, nothing.

But I'm just dancing and dancing and dancing.

And probably I think that's where that energy

or that aura is created on the stage.

And the audience can see that light or the aura,

and the audience is also transcended along with it.

[ Man vocalizing ]


Narrator: Transcendence through dance.

It's a goal pursued by experimental modern dancer

and choreographer Dare Ayorinde, as well.

Ayorinde: I do know that sometimes,

like, when I'm in that space, I don't feel like myself.

Like, I know that. I know I don't feel like myself.

I know I don't recognize the sensations

that are happening inside of me.

Sometimes I feel like I can't recognize my voice.

Sometimes I feel like I can't recognize it,

but it's happening in real time.

So sometimes I call it spirit. Sometimes I call it ancestor.

Sometimes I call it -- I don't know -- performance energy.

But I notice that it feels of otherness.

Wole Soyinka, he's, like, a -- He's a Nigerian author

who I really admire. He comes from a part of Nigeria

that my dad's side of the family comes from, too.

He says this thing -- Like, performance is

where you meet the cosmos, and I didn't really understand it

till I started, like, reading more of his stuff.

And he -- Yeah, he does.

He focuses a lot on, like, how performance in many cultures,

like, really come from tradition.

Like, come from, like, religion, tradition, ritual.

So performance is, like, a space where you get to interact

with the cosmos. It's like, when you step outside,

it's like, the known ways of your being

and you invite other things into the space.

Narrator: In 2020, Dare was one

ofDance Magazine's "25 to Watch,"

but during the pandemic, his focus turned inward,

creating what he calls a much-needed pause.

After a planned live performance fell through,

he and fellow dancer Sienna Blaw made a film

exploring subtle aspects of movement in the environment.

Ayorinde: I miss being in the studio.

I miss it, of course.

But the pause is exciting.

The pause -- exciting.

The mass death is not.

The sickness is not. The disease is not exciting.

The quarantine is not really exciting.

The pause is exciting. The pause is exciting.

I think it's giving me -- It's widening my perspectives.

It's -- You know, like, the city -- Like, you got to hustle.

Like, you got to hustle. Like, besides being in the city,

you're also a freelance artist dealing with 1099s.

You got to hustle. You've got to be on the go.

You can't really chill.

And when the pandemic hit, it gave me

an opportunity to step out of it and to, like, relook

at the ways in which I've been working,

who I've been working with, and why,

and question those things and make different decisions

or just, like, sit in the questioning.


Narrator: Film found its way into other works by fellowship

choreographers, as well.

Barkha Patel's piece, "bound," uses projected video

and words from a poem by Lalla, a 14th-century Kashmiri poet

who freed herself from an oppressive marriage.

Woman: I weep for you.

You have lost your heart to Mr. Illusion.

You have forgotten who you are.

Who are you?

And this iron anchor,

not even its shadow will remain when the time comes.


[ Speaking in Kashmiri ]

Patel: The film, again,

it was an experimental choice.

Woman: I weep for you, my soul.

Patel: I really wanted, like,

that liberated self of my own self

that's in the film. Like, in the film,

I'm not -- I don't think I'm playing Lalla.

I don't know if I'm playing myself.

I'm just being this very...

...liberated person, I guess. Yeah.



Narrator: Barkha pursued her training

in classical Kathak dance

both in India and here in New Jersey.

As a Kathak choreographer and performer,

she's dedicated to continuing the tradition

and to seeing where it will lead her.


Patel: A majority of my practice is in traditional framework.

So when I'm presenting a Holi piece,

I'm going to be very mindful

of how we present it in a traditional form

and then who in the audience is watching the Holi.

Of course, even within that, I love to find ways to innovate

or push the boundary a little bit creatively

while staying within the traditional parameters,

which I so deeply respect and I --

And I will say it's like, first and foremost, I'm a Kathak body.

I've trained in it for 23 years, and I continue to train in it.

I try to bring, at least through my thematic works,

a lot of, like, honesty, vulnerability, grit,

and just embodied stories so they can see that it always

doesn't have to be a story based on mythology.

It doesn't have to be a story based on a specific festival

we celebrate in India.

But if you mindfully create a work, you can do it

from your own experience of your current times.




Narrator: Tsai Hsi Hung is a choreographer from Taiwan

now making a name for herself in the U.S.

Just after she received the choreography fellowship

from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

her piece, "Brushstroke," was chosen

for The Joffrey Academy of Ballet's spring concert.

It's one of a series of works on a theme.

Tsai Hsi also created a "Brushstroke" duet with herself

as one of the dancers.


After that, she turned "Brushstroke" into a film,

the first she had directed and edited herself.


Hung: Because this piece kind of a little hard to me

because I'm a choreographer

and also I'm a dancer, too,

so it's hard to see the piece looks like.

So we have to do a lot of videotape.

Narrator: Tsai Hsi is a choreographer, a dancer,

a filmmaker, and a painter.

She considers her paintings emotional notes that guide her

when creating new dances, whether on stage or on film.

Her paintings of faces fill the apartment

where she spent so much time during quarantine.

They inspired Tsai Hsi to make another film called "Woman"

during the early months of 2021.


Hung: And I just like, "Okay, maybe I can do something."

Because of the COVID, I don't want to do group things.

So I go to each one of my friend's house to film me

and use the safe way.

Before we film, like, we go test the COVID.

Like, okay, it's okay, so we film it.


It's three women.

So these three woman, actually, like,

I don't give them too much words.

I just say, "Do yourself, how you feel, okay, right now."

And I just use my camera.


I'm a very quick person,

so when I make a piece, I always, like --

It's like a painting. I have a whole image.

I set up very quick, and I finish the whole piece.

And after that, I watch everything

so I can add something and cut something.

It's just like a painting. Yeah.


Narrator: Working during the pandemic has been difficult

and the return to the rehearsal studio slow,

but it is happening.



Burke: Making dances right now is incredibly tricky.

I needed to work with people who I could trust,

people that kind of were already in my bubble

as we began to loosen up the reins

and also people that knew how I worked.

Narrator: Robert is a dancer. He's worked with 10 Hairy Legs

and the Megan Williams Dance Projects,

but he's fast becoming known as a choreographer, as well.

Burke: So I think I'm naturally drawn to bigger movement.

I love to move big. I love to tear through space.

And knowing that this piece was going to be done on a stage

and not in a living room

or a bedroom or, you know, a bathroom,

I wanted to make sure that the dancers had that opportunity

to really take the space

because we don't know when we're gonna be on a stage again.

Narrator: By March of 2021,

Robert and his dancers were deep into "Passages,"

a new work in three parts that premiered on the SOPAC stage.




Burke: I really just wanted the dancers to soar and fly

and feel like they can be lifted in the air

and really, like, take up as much space as they wanted to do

because the stage allows us to do that.





Narrator: The Moving Architects is a company known

for its powerful female-centric dance.



The founder of The Moving Architects

is choreographer Erin Carlisle Norton.

A two-time winner of a choreography fellowship

from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

Erin was in full swing with a busy schedule

in early March of 2020 when the pandemic hit.

Norton: When the lockdown started,

I was doing a lot of teaching Pilates.

I was doing an arts administration position,

as well, and the company was going. Lots of rehearsals.

We were planning a local performance

in Montclair in March that we were getting ready for,

we'd just finished APAP.

And other projects of the company.

I also have a dance podcast I do

and a community outreach program.

And so a lot going on, pretty busy.

And I also have a family,

so I also have a 7-year-old son.

And so when the lockdown hit, of course,

everything completely stopped.

And just like everybody else,

I thought it would last two months,

everything would start back up.

And it didn't.

[ Indistinct conversation ]

Narrator: What started as a couple of months

stretched on and on.

But then Erin was hired to be the executive director

of Dance New Jersey.

It's an organization advocating for dance and dance education.

Norton: And so what Dance New Jersey has been doing

is really being the support system for the dance community.

And so besides doing a lot of professional development

workshops, not just about, you know,

dealing with the dance field during COVID,

but, you know, all that's happening with diversity,

equity, inclusion, access, all that work

and that cultural shift that's happening,

so bringing professional development opportunities

in those areas to everybody. And we do lots of,

like, we call them, Connection Calls, where people

come together from different parts of the field.

We bring in different speakers.

And so it has been really rewarding

because I feel the New Jersey dance field

has come together like never before.

And I feel actually more connected

to the New Jersey community.

Narrator: As pods of dancers began to rehearse

and perform together again,

Erin brought The Moving Architects together

for the filming of the fellowship showcase at SOPAC.


Erin says that "Walled" is about boundaries

and moving beyond them.

It's something that all seven of the choreographers

we've met today are doing.


Woman: Where I call you the wind and you call from upside,

"It's time to go."

Delicate wrist.


Having something to find draped across...





[ Man speaking in native language ]





Narrator: That's it for this special edition

of "State of the Arts,"

featuring seven of New Jersey's most creative choreographers.

Find out where to see these performances in their entirety

by visiting

Thanks for watching.




Announcer: The New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

encouraging excellence and engagement in the arts

since 1966,

is proud to co-produce "State of the Arts"

with Stockton University.

Additional support is provided

by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

and these friends of "State of the Arts."