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International House Resident Spreads Love of Contemporary Dance, Choreographs Fall Fiesta Performance

Hailing from the Xinjiang autonomous region in northwest China, Nisha Ha grew up dancing. That’s partly because her mother was a dance instructor in her home town. “She’s a great dance teacher. She’s passionate about dance, teaching and choreography. But she thinks you cannot make a lot of money in dance. So she didn’t want me to study dance in college.” But throughout school Nisha and a tight group of friends found themselves spending much of their free time practicing traditional and ethnic Chinese dances, sometimes performing for faculty and students and once winning a competition on local television. Nisha eventually earned her undergraduate degree in English. But she didn’t want to become an English teacher and didn’t want to find work as a translator for foreign investors, two common jobs for English majors in China. “The only thing I felt enthusiastic for was dance.” She and her mother would talk with each other on the phone daily, and her mother felt her urge. “After I graduated, she said ‘OK, you’re a grown up now. You can decide your life. You can do anything you like.’ So I made my decision.” Nisha enrolled in a Chinese dance academy for about two years, eventually falling in love with modern and contemporary dance. Then she decided to come to New York City, which she calls the “paradise of contemporary arts,” to continue her studies. She enrolled in New York University, where she is in her second year. At the start of 2017, she moved into International House. This spring, she began leading contemporary dance classes for Residents.
Nisha Ha and Resident performers at the 2017 Fall Fiesta at International House.
Every weekend, Nisha and a handful of participants gather inside the Froelich Gymnasium to practice and learn new movements. Their latest project: preparing for a performance at the 2017 Fall Fiesta. During one recent practice, after warm-ups and a run-through of the jumps, steps, spins, and reaches involved in the piece. Nisha asked how everyone felt. “Slippery,” replied one Resident-participant. “Don’t feel so much pressure,” Nisha assured her pupils, echoing an attitude she expressed earlier in an interview. “A lot of people say that, ‘Oh, I don’t dance. I cannot do that. It’s too hard for me. My body isn’t good for dance. I want to convince people that everybody can dance,” she said. “I think, make it easy and just listen to music and move your body and you can also have the opportunity to express your feelings through dancing. So that’s my purpose.” Nisha says her goal is to make contemporary dance simple and approachable. She encourages an easy-going environment in class and often will play pop music to accompany the movements. For Fall Fiesta, she has planned to incorporate text into the performance. She’s taking inspiration from the work of Bill T. Jones, the New York City choreographer who has frequently used spoken word as a vehicle to add significance and meaning in the performances he directs. During the Saturday afternoon class, Nisha asked the I-House participants to write responses to various prompts. She wanted them to write down who they are, what questions they have about the world, what questions they have about others, and their idea of what dance is. Nisha plans to have the response read aloud as the dancers improvise their own movements for a segment immediately preceding the main performance. The idea is to show that dance can be a mode of self-expression and a reflection of the hopes and fears of the world. “Sometimes there are some ugly movements. Sometimes it’s dark,” she says of contemporary choreography. This differs from what can be found in her hometown, where traditional dancing dominates parties and weddings. But Nisha says she still appreciates the dancing she grew up with. “I learned a lot of traditional dance there,” she says. “The music and the dance are very different from the other part[s] of China. It’s a little similar to the Middle East.” “Actually, we have a lot of diversity there,” she continues. “I think my hometown is pretty cool.” But when it comes to her current choreography projects, Nisha regularly goes beyond what she learned growing up, noting that the mix of cultures, nationalities and perspectives at International House complement what she’s trying to do. “Contemporary dance and modern dance embrace all the cultures from different places,” she says. “I really appreciate every dance from different regions and I like to incorporate [them] in my dance.” Her studies at NYU place a big emphasis on education – something she’s tried to apply at I-House. “Education is about your discovering the relationship [of] your interactions with people,” she says.