By Steve Sucato
The story of Chinese immigrants who came to the American South in the 18th and early 19th centuries is one of hardship, discrimination and segregation. Their plight serves as the inspiration for New York City-based HT Chen and Dancers latest work, South of Gold Mountain.
Excerpts of it, along with other repertory pieces, will be performed by the company Saturday at Nichols School’s Flickinger Performing Arts Center.
The public performance, presented by Pick of the Crop Dance, caps a weeklong residency by the company at area schools including Pinehurst, Holmes and Waterfront elementary schools, East Aurora and City Honors high schools, and Nichols School. Students kindergarten-aged and older learned about the company’s unique brand of Asian-American dance that blends the strength and beauty of Asian aesthetics with Western modern dance technique.
Founded in 1978 by Chinese transplant H.T. Chen, the company has toured across the United States, Europe and Asia, including several visits to Buffalo; the last in 2008.
The program, supported by funds from the New York State DanceForce, the UB Confucius Institute and the Nichols School Chinese Language Program, will begin with a 13-minute excerpt from Chen’s “Warriors of Light” (1998), an abstract work set to a commissioned score by composer Bradley Kaus. The prop-infused piece portrays a sense of struggle along humanity’s journey toward enlightenment.
The troupe will then be joined by several local dance students in Chen’s “Meridian,” a dance work based on tai chi and the martial arts exercises. Next, Chen’s “Celebration Dance,” a five-minute excerpt from his 2000 work “Bian Dan,” explores Chinese generational relationships.
Rounding out the program will be the production’s marquee work, South of Gold Mountain (excerpts).
Choreographers Chen and wife, Dian Dong, the company’s education director, spent three years researching South of Gold Mountain, traveling to Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi to gather oral histories from Chinese who settled in the South before World War II and their descendants.
“We felt that it was important to hear from these people as it is a vanishing population,” Dong said. “Not only did this generation of Chinese live ‘invisible’ lives, but because of lack of opportunities, many left the area for better education and employment options.”
Set to a sound score by James Lo incorporating fragments from the collected oral histories, blues music, environmental sounds and traditional Western and Chinese music, the multimedia South of Gold Mountain, chronicles some of what immigrants who left China to escape war and famine, faced in the American South working on cotton plantations and building railroads.
“Those who arrived in Southern states were isolated in deeply segregated communities,” Dong said. “Many soon stopped picking cotton to open small businesses.”
The work also pays tribute to those who earned their livelihoods in Chinese groceries, laundries and restaurants; persevering to make a life for themselves and their families in the country they dubbed “Gold Mountain.”
What: HT Chen and Dancers
When: 7 p.m., March 12
Where: Flickinger Performing Arts Center, 1250 Amherst St.