Going by the directive written in purple marker and taped to a wall, one rule governs this basement room in Northwest: NO BAD WORDS IN DANCE STUDIO.
Yet it’s laughable to think that swearing could even be an issue on a recent evening, when Dana Tai Soon Burgess is rehearsing the members of his dance company. Burgess, 44, is padding barefoot around the dancers, silently writing remarks in a spiral notebook. Tall, trim and broad-shouldered in a snug black T-shirt and black athletic shorts, he looks like a jock. A chic jock. But he projects the inner calm and concentration of a tai chi master.
Choreographers aren’t like painters or sculptors; they have to express themselves through other humans, and the frustrations of getting a group of people to do exactly what they want can fray the steadiest nerves. Burgess displays none of this. He speaks to his dancers — or rather, makes polite proposals — in a voice that’s just above a whisper. Yoga classes are more frenetic than this rehearsal. The high-ceilinged studio at Georgetown Day School High School has the soothing, almost somnolent vibe of a bodywork spa as Burgess watches his dancers, stopping them occasionally for brief, soft-spoken requests to, say, adjust the tension in their finger joints.
“Let your thought process move your epaulement,” he suggests, aiming to bring about more natural movement in the shoulders and neck.
But don’t let his gentleness fool you.
Three dancers are gliding through the subtle push-pull of his new piece called “Caverns,” which represents a woman’s fractured memories of love. At one point, Burgess asks one of the dancers to add a turn to her step. She doesn’t think she can do it.
“Oh, okay,” says Burgess, agreeably. (Or so it seems.) “That’s fine.”
And then, in the same even voice, as if he’d never heard her: “Can you try it with a turn?”
She does, and looks lovely. Burgess ends up with precisely the action he wanted, because underneath his low-key demeanor is a granite will.
It’s by virtue of that tenacity that his group, Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company, wraps up its 20th-anniversary season with performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday at George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre. In the underfunded indie art of modern dance, here or elsewhere, few troupes can boast such longevity — especially given the prevailing climate change in the economy and in the arts, when constant money woes, unreliable audiences and the exhaustion of relentless responsibilities loom large.
In 1992, who would have believed Burgess would be successful? He launched his troupe in a recession, and spent most of the first year preparing for just one show. A Korean American who grew up in New Mexico, his artistic focus, then as now, centered on the stories and themes of the Asian experience. It is a limited niche, in other words, and one that doesn’t always offer happy tales. Burgess’s “Island” reflects on the internment of Chinese immigrants at the turn of the last century on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. His “Tracings,” inspired by Korean immigration to America, is a meditation on melancholy and loss.
Another factor working against him — or so it might have seemed — is that much like his personality, Burgess’s style of choreography is restrained, small scale. He doesn’t do crowd-pleasing jumps and kicks. His brand of movement resembles black-inked brush strokes in space, set off by stillness and anticipation. The athleticism of reality-TV dance shows may be spilling over into concert dance, but not in Burgess’s corner. As the dance landscape has lost some of its more individualistic voices (Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham), and one small troupe can look much like any other small troupe, Burgess has kept steadfastly to his quiet, unique aesthetic.
Smart move. From his improbable beginning, Burgess can look back on a string of achievements. He is the chairman of George Washington University’s theater and dance department. He has developed his company into one of the area’s most protean and important arts organizations. Having attracted the attention of the State Department and the Smithsonian, he’s one of the few local artists to gain entry into official Washington.
Burgess’s company has traveled around the world, to Jordan in May and to Mongolia a year ago; past stops include Peru, Mexico, India and the Middle East. Many of these have been State Department-sponsored tours. In September 2013, he and his dancers will be featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit “Dancing the Dream,” where his portrait will hang in a gallery alongside modern-dance pioneers Isadora Duncan and Graham and contemporary masters Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris.
And he’ll have the run of the building for site-specific performances.
Burgess’s likeness already hangs in the museum; his is the first photo in a series of portraits by the Korean American artist CYJO as part of the “Asian American Portraits of Encounter” exhibit, on view through Oct. 14. It’s worth seeing to understand how a dancer, standing against a white wall like all the other subjects in the series, can project a palpable energy in two dimensions the way no one else can. All the photos depict interesting people, but Burgess’s tells you exactly who he is.
“What I like about Dana is he’s a great storyteller,” says Amy Henderson, curator of “Dancing the Dream.” “One of the missions of this museum is to tell the great American stories, and there’s Dana doing it in movement.” Walking through the main hallway of the National Portrait Gallery with him as they brainstormed about the future exhibit, Henderson recalled how “you could see his neurons firing. He was all excited, saying, ‘What if I choreographed a new work using the spaces in the museum?’ He wanted to get out of the box.”
Out of the box: Although Burgess’s interest in channeling the Asian experience has not wavered in 20 years, his vision for his company has.
“He’s not stuck in 1992,” says Connie Lin Fink, the troupe’s associate director. “He’s constantly reinventing the company.” This means it often moves off the proscenium stage and into a courtyard or a gallery. Last year Burgess created a work that his dancers performed in the rotunda of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, inspired by the Spencer Finch solo show, “My Business, With the Cloud.” In the light cast by one of Finch’s translucent cloud sculptures, which was meant to re-create the daytime colors on one of Washington’s street corners where Walt Whitman used to stand and greet Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Burgess’s poignant dance suggested how a supportive community can help heal wartime losses.
“I’m always trying to think about projects that will incite growth, within me and the dancers and my collaborators,” he says.
Burgess credits his parents, both visual artists living in Santa Fe, N.M., with nurturing his creative drive, although he didn’t discover dance until he attended the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Before then, he had studied various martial arts, and the aesthetic of respect and self-possession he took from them is as clear in his work as are such classic modern-dance elements as weightedness, resistance and negative space.
He dropped out of school and moved to Washington in 1989 to immerse himself in dance, though the troupes he performed with have since folded — Sharon Wyrrick’s Full Circle, Eric Hampton Dance and D.C. Contemporary Dance Theater. If he wanted to keep dancing, he realized, he’d have to start a company of his own. (Burgess went on to finish his degree and get a master’s while running the troupe.)
Several of his dancers have been with him for a decade or longer, adding up to an unusually loyal group. And if knowing one another’s bodies is at the essence of a strong ensemble, it was Burgess’s body and the way he used it that helped build the ensemble in the first place.
“This combination of flowing, wavy, circular movement, contrasted with the sharp, angular and precise movement that he gets from martial arts — I just thought it was incredibly beautiful,” says Tati Valle-Riestra, who met Burgess when she was a student in a dance class he taught. She has been in his company for 12 years.
“He was exquisite, like satin,” recalls Carla Perlo, founder of Dance Place and an early supporter of Burgess. “It’s rare you see someone who was that good a performer who is also an extraordinary choreographer. You take those two talents together, and that ought to be enough to sustain someone over time.
“Then you take the richness of his ability to truly examine his heritage, and the really difficult path of his ancestors, and to be able to explore all that and express it openly . . . He has really educated the public, not just about the Korean struggle to be here but the universality of it, what it takes for people to immigrate. He has done a beautiful job over a series of works, not just one work.”
Typical for Burgess, the piece he created for his company’s two-decade mark is not a big, splashy, celebratory production, but one of his smallest works to date. It’s a 13-minute trio, designed, Burgess says, “around how the mind remembers things.”
His troupe has arced from one recession to another, and Burgess has had to become more money-minded than he ever wanted to be. It’s not only his gentle manners and charm that wins donors over, but his work ethic. When a major grant fell through early last year, dancer Kelly Moss Southall recalls, Burgess explained the loss to the dancers and said he had a plan. “The plan was basically nonstop-for-two-weeks-no-sleep fundraising, and lunches and dinners with everyone,” Southall says. “And he made it work.” Burgess raised $65,000 in a month and a half, and the company ended the year with a small surplus.
But funding successes, international tours and a peaceful attitude are not the only reason the Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company has made it so far.
“The conversation on diversity in America is changing,” Burgess says. “That could be why I’ve survived. Literally, the face of America is changing. It used to be okay to make one dance about the Asian American experience or the African American experience, but now we have to go deeper. We’re craving a deeper conversation about those things. And it’s limitless.”
8 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Betts Marvin Theatre, 800 21st St. NW.