My Career Choice: Jessica Chen – Founder, J Chen Project
Jessica Chen is an American dancer, choreographer and founder of J Chen Project which will present the world premiere of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heroes: Myths and Legends on March 30 and 31 at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), located at 215 Centre Street in New York City. The evening will include new works inspired by two iconic Asian American figures who have significantly impacted American culture and society: Bruce Lee and Anna May Wong. The performances will pay tribute to the enduring influence of Bruce Lee’s martial arts and philosophy, and the trailblazing career of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star.
Chen, who will direct the production, uses her art as a vehicle for storytelling and social impact. A survivor of a near-fatal car accident, Chen uses movement to heal and understand the human experience. Her work has been presented at New York Fashion Week at MoMA, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center and the World Expo-USA Pavilion in Shanghai. As a 2021 Gallim Moving Women Artist-in-Residence, 2021 Dance Lab New York Choreographer, and 2021-2022 Artist-in-Residence at MOCA, she continues to inspire and create opportunities for marginalized communities through the arts. In 2023 Jessica will choreograph Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella for Geva Theater, and assistant direct the new play, The Messenger, commissioned by Palm Beach Dramaworks.
“Rooted in my own ancestral history, I use dance as a vehicle to challenge audiences to examine the systemic ways society marginalizes the AAPI community and to make a direct impact on it,” Chen says. “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the invisibility and lack of representation of the AAPI community in mainstream media and society. I see the body as a political vessel and use dance to spark conversation within the community and generate action that disrupts and dismantles hierarchy, and hopefully, ignite societal change.” (For more information, go to the website for the J Chen Project.)
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Yes. I remember the moment that triggered my interest in becoming a choreographer as if it were yesterday. During my freshman year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was taking a jazz class when my professor showed us a documentary on the renowned choreographer Alvin Ailey and his masterpiece, “Revelations.” As I watched in awe, I witnessed the dancers tell a story through their movements, deeply moving me. At that moment, I thought, “Wow, I want to do that.”
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
What I find most appealing about being a choreographer and director is that I combine my passion with my profession—seeing my vision come to life on stage and the positive impact that my work can have on others is incredibly rewarding. The creative energy that comes from working together to bring a performance to life is truly exhilarating.
Jessica Chen (Photo by Bill Hebert)
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I’ve been dancing since I was just five years old, so I’ve been honing my skills practically my entire life. When I entered UCSB freshman year, I eagerly enrolled in every modern dance class available to me. I applied for the Emerging Choreographers’ Festival in my senior year and got accepted! My mentor, the esteemed Tonia Shimin, guided me through the process, and I eventually performed my solo piece, “Metamorphosis,” at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara.
After graduating from college, I knew I wanted to continue training, so I packed my bags and headed to NYC. I dedicated myself to perfecting my craft at renowned institutions like The Ailey School and the Earl Mosley Institute of the Arts (now known as Diversity of Dance). To support myself financially, I worked as a manager at Broadway Dance Center, which gave me affordable access to taking an array of classes.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
Yes and Yes. The reality is that everyone’s path to becoming an artist is different and may involve both positive and negative feedback from others. For me, fostering a supportive and nurturing community is important to maintain my artistic spirit. I also dedicate time to self-reflection, self-care, and meditation to stay grounded and centered amidst the ebbs and flows of life and career. It’s also worth noting that sometimes advice that sounds harsh or discouraging can offer valuable insight. As long as I take care of myself mentally and physically, I have more capacity to remain open to constructive criticism. And sometimes if the criticism from an individual is not productive, it’s a message to stay away from that person.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I never attempted a career change, but do I ever doubt? – Yes. Doubt, like those naysayers, can be a healthy and necessary part of critical thinking and can even lead to breakthroughs. And then there’s the doubt that can be paralyzing and produce a sense of hopelessness. I experience and navigate through both.
Jessica Chen (Photo by Chris Nicodemo)
When did your career reach a tipping point?
One of the tipping points in my career came in 2016 when I choreographed an Off-Broadway show at the Minetta Lane Theater. This project opened a new pathway for me to pursue projects in the commercial theater space alongside leading J CHEN PROJECT, a nonprofit contemporary dance company.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
In 2012, I was in a near-fatal car accident that rendered me in a coma for 13 days after 8 hours of brain surgery. My rehabilitation included learning how to sit, stand, walk, and move again. This was my biggest challenge and, simultaneously, my biggest motivation. During my recovery, I spent a lot of time thinking about my career and reflecting on what I want to do with my life. I couldn’t wait to get back to what I love doing the most, creating and sharing.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
My proudest accomplishment is the show I am about to premiere titled AAPI Heroes: Myths and Legends. This show is an immersive evening of dance that reimagines the past, present, and future through an Asian American cultural lens. I use movement as a vehicle to heal wounds, share stories, and better understand our human existence. There are seven dances that I have choreographed that aim to educate, raise awareness, and inspire audiences to stand in solidarity and take action to address and combat these issues while also honoring the rich fruits of AAPI history.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Be curious. As a choreographer, there is always more to learn and explore. Whether it’s studying new dance styles, experimenting with different choreographic techniques, or seeking out new sources of inspiration, there is always something new to discover and incorporate into my work. Get inspired. The ability to collaborate with other artists, including dancers, musicians, designers, and lighting technicians, makes this career path so exhilarating. Be open to advise and suggestions, and know that you have the power to drive your path forward. Move forward, avoid getting stuck in the past, but learn from it, and move forward. Dream Big!!! You’ve got this!!!
Top photo: Jessica Chen – Photo by Paul Dimalanta