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.