July 21, 2018 | ° F

Modern dance company “J Chen Project” seeks to inspire

Photo by Aaron Savage |

Founder of "J Chen Project," Jessica Chen and Sandy Shelton perform in "Training the Devil," a part of "An Evening With Jessica Chen - A Journey Through Life and Death and Life," an event hosted by Rutgers University Programming Association on the evening of Feb. 19.

Jessica Chen recalled the moment she woke up from a coma, where she gestured for her boyfriend to bend over. Instead of croaking out “I love you,” she whispered, voice hoarse, “get me out of here.”

In the wake of a debilitating car accident and the accompanying eight hours of surgery, 13 hours in a coma and an unsuccessful attempt to flee from the hospital, Chen, an inspirational speaker and dancer, reflected enough on her rehabilitation process to find the roots for her to-be modern dance company, the “J Chen Project.”

“The doctor said that I (could) recover as a healthy person but not as a professional dancer anymore,” she said. “My family urged me to go back to California instead of dancing in New York.”

Though acquiescing to frequent advice from family to give up dance and move back from New York City to California, Chen instead gave herself a second chance to approach life in the way she wanted, and she ultimately chose dance.

To showcase her art, the Rutgers University Programming Association (RUPA) hosted “A Evening with Jessica Chen — A Journey Through Life and Death and Life” yesterday night at Trayes Hall in the Douglass Student Center.

Chen and six other dancers, Jessica Aronoff, Flannery Houston, Sandy Shelton, Rafael Sanchez, Yasmin Schoenmann and Cole Mills, put on seven contemporary dance performances, followed by Chen’s speech “Dance Through My Recovery”.

Started in 2008, the “J Chen Project” is committed to the artistic conversation between artists and audience, putting imagination onto the stage and letting it live on those who witness, according to the company’s website.

Chen, the artistic director of the J Chen Project and a University of California, Santa Barbara graduate, has held seminars across the globe and presented work at numerous venues including the New York Live Arts Studio Series and Brooklyn Museum of Art, according to the J Chen Project’s website.

“It is the first time that RUPA (brought) a dance company to Rutgers,” said Lindsey Silvera, assistant director of outreach for RUPA.

Silvera, a dance major in the Mason Gross School of the Arts, said it is important to keep an open mind while appreciating modern dance.

Karishma Motwani, assistant marketing director of outreach for RUPA and a dancer affiliated with Rutgers South Asian Performing Artist (SAPA), expected the audience to feel inspired by the power of art to help people through hardships.

“It’s a different way of expressing oneself other than conversation,” Silvera said. “What I really love about (contemporary dance) is that inspirational stories are told through body movements and everyone can take it in their own way.”

Chen’s dance “Prayer” is one of those pieces.

Chen said she devised the dance relating to her days in the hospital. Though not a religious person, she realized the importance of faith not just to herself, but to all the people waiting outside of the Intensive Care Unit.

“There were people with all colors and ages,” she said. “They can’t do anything but (hope) for the best. It’s interesting to see the ways of how we are all the same — we all fear, we all want happiness, and we all hope.”

Last night, Chen embodied those three feelings in her solo piece “Climb” that implicated her step-by-step process of rehabilitation after her accident. It was a time when she had to relearn how to chew and walk and rethink about life, she said.

“It is scary to trust my body again,” she said, “There (was) so much unknown, but at last I held on to the thing that I know, which is dance.”

Chen concluded her performance with “Amen,” encouraging people to familiarize themselves with the demons that ensnare them and always be ready to take a leap of faith.

Emily Bliss, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student and participant in Rutgers theater groups such as the College Avenue Players, said she came to the event with an interest in how stories can be told.

“While in theater we express using words, (with) dance it’s totally different,” she said.

Neil Russell, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, another attendee and coordinator of a hip-pop dance team called “Team Technique” in the Taiwanese American Student Association, reflected his passion for dance.

“Dance is the reason I wake up in the morning,” he said. “It is one of the best ways to express yourself. It is physical, and you pour energy and emotions into the movements.”

Weini Zhang

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