HT Chen, Choreographer of the Asian Experience, Dies at 74

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

Mrs. Dong said the cause was lung cancer.

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

“I combined them together to come out with my own movement vocabulary,” he explained and a 2013 video interview.

Mr. Chen, who earned a master’s degree in dance education at New York University in 1978, drew on his own heritage and on Asian American history in many of his works. For a 2015 piece, “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,” sought to capture the immigrant experience at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants, most from China, were processed in the first half of the last century.

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

“Figures young, old, Asian and non-Asian,” he wrote, “come out and join the dancers to form a tableau of a diverse, entrenched immigrant community, walking slowly towards the audience with an air of determination, survival and belonging. “

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 education program that has offered classes and worked extensively in city schools. In 1988 they added a theater at the site, a former public school where generations of immigrants had been educated.

Reviewing a dance show there in 1989, Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times called the space “a place where theatrical magic seems about to happen,” and over the years it hosted countless performances — not only dance, but also puppet shows and other multicultural 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 set in, the center has offered classes and school programs virtually.

Mrs. Dong said the center hopes to rebuild; the city has earmarked millions of dollars for the site, although specific plans for it are in flux.

Mrs. Dong said her husband’s work, on the stage and in schools, served a vital purpose.

“Because HT Chen focused much of his creations on the stories of Chinese in the Americas, these works are important for enabling students to understand the contributions of Chinese in the building of America,” she said by email. “When guided to look deeper into the culture, students begin to view Asians not as the ‘alien other’ but as their friends, neighbors and colleagues.”

Hsueh-Tung Chen was born on June 23, 1947, to Chiang and Hsian Yuan Ming Chen, and raised in Taiwan. He liked to draw and paint, he said, and his parents thought he might become 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 Juilliard he met Ms. Dong, a fellow student. Martha Hill, director of the school’s dance division, asked her to be his translator. They married in 1975.

Before starting his own troupe, Mr. Chen choreographed for and performed at La MaMa theater in New York, and that organization gave his dance troupe a home before its move to Mulberry Street.

When he took his dance company on the road, Mr. Chen was known for enhancing the performances with explanatory lectures and demonstrations aimed at people not familiar with modern dance. As The Cincinnati Enquirer put it in 2000, when he brought an evening he called “Eye of the Beholder” to the University of Cincinnati, “He wants to assure audiences that there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“Mr. Chen won’t tell you how to look at modern dance,” the newspaper added, “but will offer help in what to look for.”

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

“I feel that people in a community don’t have a chance to touch modern dance,” he said. “Maybe they have a local studio with tap dance 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 spoke about why so many of his works focused on history and cultural heritage.

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

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