Immigrant story at home with Burgess troupe
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, Oct. 14, 2011
Like haiku, choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess's works are spare and simple but infused with meaning. Beneath his technically precise movement, there's untarnished emotion based on stories of longing and loss, love and abandonment, displacement and migration.
"I've become more and more interested in creating works that really look at our universal search for belonging through emotional resolution," the Washington choreographer says, pointing to his own multicultural upbringing and personal quest for a sense of place as a frequent starting point. "Events in childhood or situations we find ourselves in growing up often lead us to feel like outsiders."
Burgess's newest work, "Becoming American," which has its premiere at Dance Place this weekend, draws on the story of one of his longtime dancers, Katia Chupashko, to examine the nature of displacement in the 21st century. When she was a toddler, Chupashko, 28, was adopted from a South Korean orphanage with her 4-year-old brother, and she often felt like an outsider in the small New Jersey town where she was raised.
"It was a great childhood growing up in a small community," Chupashko says, "but there were always hidden feelings of being different that made it sometimes challenging in terms of physical appearance for me."
Like many internationally adopted children, Chupashko felt she didn't fit in - she longed for blonde hair and blue eyes - and she had no real connection to her Korean heritage. It was when she took her first dance lessons at age 7 that her world changed. "Dance was one of the things that helped me feel a part of the community," she says.
Chupashko, now in her eighth season with the company, initially resisted baring so much of her personal history for "Becoming American," but she eventually came to terms with it.
"These are my experiences. They made me who I am today. I shouldn't feel uncomfortable about my story because it is what it is," she says. "As you mature, of course, you realize that it's really about finding acceptance and understanding within yourself."
Parts of "Becoming American" come straight from Chupashko's biography, but other elements of the piece make her story universal.
Turning to the Asian aesthetic he favors, Burgess cast his dancers, aside from Chupashko and the pair who play her parents, as black-clad Japanese-style bunraku puppeteers, performing between and before shojilike screens.
"In designing this piece I thought a lot about the different layers of emotional alienation that one might feel, so there are only three characters on stage - Katia and her adoptive parents," Burgess says. "The rest of the dancers you see as attendants. . . . Their job is to move and manipulate the sets and props."
But they're more than stage hands: "These shadowy figures represent anxiety and a certain level of fear for Katia. She can see and interact with them, but her parental figures can't," he says.
"Becoming American" doesn't provide a road map for others on similar cross-cultural journeys, but Burgess says he hopes that wrestling with the issue will provide comfort.
"How," he asks, "do we find a settled place within our psyche to rebuild a life within a new location and within a new culture?"