H.T. Chen, Choreographer of the Asian Experience, Dies at 74

HT Chen, who blended Eastern and Western influences in his choreography and founded the Chen Dance Center, a cultural hub in New York’s Chinatown, with his wife Dian Dong for more than 40 years, died June 12 in Manhattan. He was 74.

Ms. Dong said the cause was lung cancer.

Mr. Chen, who was born in Shanghai, came to the United States in 1971 and, shortly after graduating from the Juilliard School, founded HT Chen & Dancers in 1976, a modern dance company that has performed frequently in New York and toured extensively. Mr. Chen studied classical Chinese dance and the use of acrobatics, martial arts and dance in Chinese opera before coming to New York, and learned western modern dance techniques at Juilliard.

“I combined them to bring out my own movement vocabulary,” he explained in a 2013 video interview.

Mr. Chen, who earned a master’s degree in dance education from New York University in 1978, drew on his own heritage and Asian-American history in many of his works. For his 2015 play South of Gold Mountain, he spent three years collecting stories and images of Chinese immigrants who had settled in the southern United States, some of whom worked on cotton plantations.

A signature work he developed in the mid-1990s, Transparent Hinges, attempted to capture the immigrant experience of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly from China, settled in the first half of the last year were processed century.

When his dance company performed the work in Chicago in 1999, Sid Smith, dance critic for the Chicago Tribune, was particularly struck by the closing moments.

“Persons young, old, Asian and non-Asian,” he wrote, “come out and join the dancers to form a tableau of a diverse, deeply entrenched immigrant community that is slowly growing with an aura of determination, survival and… belonging towards the audience. ”

In 1980, Mr. Chen and Ms. Dong opened the Chen Dance Center on Mulberry Street in Chinatown as a home for the dance troupe and a dance training program that offers classes and works extensively in city schools. In 1988, they added a theater to the site, a former public school that had taught generations of immigrants.

When Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times reviewed a dance show there in 1989, she called the space “a place where theatrical magic seems to be about to happen,” and over the years it’s hosted countless performances—not just dance ones, but also puppet shows and other multicultural performances events.

In January 2020, a fire destroyed the complex, which also housed various community organizations and the archives of the Museum of Chinese in America. The troupe has since performed in alternative spaces, including outdoors, and since the pandemic began, the center has offered virtual classes and school programs.

Ms. Dong said the center hopes to rebuild; The city has committed millions of dollars to the site, although concrete plans for it are in flux.

Ms. Dong said her husband’s work on the stage and in the schools serves a vital purpose.

“Since HT Chen focused much of his creations on the stories of the Chinese people in America, these works are important in enabling students to understand the Chinese people’s contributions to America’s construction,” she said via email. “As students are guided to delve deeper into the culture, they begin to see Asians not as ‘strangers,’ but as their friends, neighbors and co-workers.”

Hsueh-Tung Chen was born on June 23, 1947 to Chiang and Hsian Yuan Ming Chen and grew up in Taiwan. He liked to draw and paint, he said, and his parents thought he might be an architect, but he was more interested in movement.

He studied dance at the College of Chinese Culture in Taiwan before coming to New York. At the Juilliard School, he met Ms. Dong, a fellow student. Martha Hill, principal of the school’s dance department, asked her to be his translator. They married in 1975.

Before starting his own troupe, Mr. Chen choreographed and performed for La MaMa in New York, and this organization gave his dance troupe a home before moving to Mulberry Street.

When he was touring with his dance company, Mr. Chen was known for enriching the performances with explanatory lectures and performances aimed at people unfamiliar with modern dance. As The Cincinnati Enquirer put it in 2000 when he brought an evening entitled “Eye of the Beholder” to the University of Cincinnati, “He wants to assure the audience that there is nothing to fear.”

“Mr. Chen will not tell you how to look at modern dance,” the paper added, “but he will offer help on what to search.”

In an interview with the newspaper, he explained his reasoning.

“I feel like people in a community don’t have a chance to be exposed to modern dance,” he said. “Maybe they have a local studio with tap dancing or clogging or ballet, but not modern.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Chen, who lived in Manhattan, is survived by two daughters, Yeeli and Evelyn Chen, and three siblings, Hsueh-Ping Chen, June Lee and Winnie Ching.

In the 2000 interview, Mr. Chen talked about why so much of his work focused on history and heritage.

“I find it very important as an individual,” he said, “that you know who you are and where you come from.”

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