In praise of still­ness Chore­og­ra­pher Dana Tai Soon Burgess

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Michael Wade Simp­son For The New Mex­i­can

March is some­thing of a home­com­ing for Dana Tai Soon Burgess. The Smith­so­nian In­sti­tute’s first chore­og­ra­pher-in-res­i­dence at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery chose Santa Fe to kick off a na­tional tour cel­e­brat­ing the 25th an­niver­sary of his dance com­pany. He and his en­sem­ble have been in res­i­dence at NDI New Mex­ico since March 14, teach­ing master classes and of­fer­ing open re­hearsals. The com­pany per­forms at the Dance Barns on Satur­day, March 18. Now based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Burgess has been called the “poet lau­re­ate of Wash­ing­ton dance.” He serves as a cul­tural envoy for the U.S. State Depart­ment, and his dance com­pany has ap­peared in more than 30 coun­tries.

Burgess’ mother, the Korean-Amer­i­can fiber artist Anna Kang Burgess, is a de­scen­dant of Korean plan­ta­tion work­ers in Hawaii. His father, Joseph Burgess, now de­ceased, was a painter and art ed­u­ca­tor who learned Man­darin in the Navy and earned an MA in Chi­nese lan­guage and his­tory from Yale. His par­ents met in art school and ran a gallery in Carmel, Cal­i­for­nia, be­fore mov­ing to New Mex­ico in 1974. “I went to a Span­ish-im­mer­sion el­e­men­tary school, but my mother kept an Asian house­hold,” Burgess said. “I at­tended Santa Fe High School, but was sent to a mar­tial-arts dojo on Canyon Road ev­ery day af­ter school.”

Hav­ing two artists as par­ents had a pro­found ef­fect on Burgess, as did liv­ing in Santa Fe, where be­ing a “hy­phen­ated Amer­i­can” was not un­usual. The con­flu­ence of Na­tive, His­panic, An­glo, and in his case, Asian, cul­tures is re­flected in the sub­ject mat­ter of his dances. “I make works about new Amer­i­cans and their jour­neys. I’m in­ter­ested in peo­ple who live in the mar­gins,” Burgess said.

“Hav­ing vis­ual artists as par­ents taught me to con­sider the stage as a can­vas, and the dancers as brush strokes. I grew up around the cre­ative process. I un­der­stood early on what it meant to be an artist.” Still, when he en­rolled at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico, his goal was to break the fam­ily par­a­digm. “I was go­ing to be an ac­coun­tant,” he said, but he hated the sub­ject. He hap­pened upon a dance class in ses­sion at Carlisle Gym­na­sium and was drawn to its phys­i­cal­ity — the con­nec­tion to his mar­tialarts train­ing. He kept go­ing back. “Even­tu­ally, the teacher came up to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you ac­tu­ally signed up for this class?’ ” Be­fore long, he had re­ceived a schol­ar­ship to ma­jor in dance, and he had train­ing in bal­let, jazz, mod­ern, and fla­menco while at univer­sity.

In 1994, Burgess re­ceived an MFA in dance from Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He then moved to New York and danced with sev­eral com­pa­nies, but Man­hat­tan never felt like home. “Af­ter grow­ing up in Santa Fe, I felt New York City to be over­whelm­ing. It just cul­ti­vated com­pe­ti­tion.” Wash­ing­ton, D.C., on the other hand, seemed to call him back. “I loved the beauty of the city. The mu­se­ums, the city’s graciousness. This is the place for me, I de­cided. I started chore­ograph­ing soon af­ter and im­me­di­ately re­ceived sup­port from fun­ders and the press.” He has been there ever since. He be­gan teach­ing at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in 2000, where he cur­rently serves as chair of the Depart­ment of Theatre and Dance.

“What in­forms my work is the goal of find­ing uni­ver­sal­ity,” he said. “All the cul­tures I was ex­posed to grow­ing up un­der­stood move­ment. It’s fun­da­men­tal of all of hu­man­ity. Peo­ple dance when they are elated, de­pressed, when they want to ex­press their in­te­rior world — to ex­press what they are feel­ing and think­ing.”

Burgess’ many in­ter­na­tional tours have also of­fered in­spi­ra­tion. “I love the ges­tures used in Cam­bo­dian dance — the sto­ry­telling and the way they are not afraid to take a lot of time to let the story un­fold. There is not the Amer­i­can shock of dance py­rotech­nics. I be­lieve in the beauty of si­lence, still­ness, and gesture. I re­spect the po­etic,” he said.

For his cur­rent res­i­dency at the Smith­so­nian, Burgess will cre­ate dances in­spired by two up­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tions and per­form them in the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery: The Face of Bat­tle: Amer­i­cans at War, 9/11 to Now (opening April 7) and One Life: Sylvia Plath (opening June 30). Lead­ing up to the per­for­mances, the com­pany will hold open re­hearsals in the mu­seum to pro­vide vis­i­tors with a win­dow into the chore­og­ra­pher’s cre­ative process.

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