By Jeff Watts
Dance troupe cultivates a sense of belonging
By Jess Righthand
Friday, March 30, 2012
At a company class in the basement of Georgetown Day School, Dana Tai Soon Burgess demonstrates a combination. He dictates as he moves, calling for a plie here followed by a tendu there. His dancers are unfazed when he throws in moves from outside the classical realm: a martial arts-inspired chop, a spiral and an arm gesture that Burgess calls "turn off the light."
This blending of East and West, classical and contemporary, is at the heart of the aesthetic Burgess has been cultivating the past two decades. It is the evolution of that distinctive style, the choreographer says, that will be front and center in his company's 20th-anniversary show.
"In 1992, I founded this company to voice the stories of Asian Americans and new Americans through dance," Burgess says. "This is a nice, diverse program, but at the same time it will give people an understanding of what our work is."
The program features four pieces from different points in the company's history. It begins with "Khaybet," a solo from 2003 that Burgess created after a tour to Pakistan. Then comes "Hyphen," his 2008 exploration of what it means to be a "hyphenated" American (Burgess is Korean American). Next is "Fractures" about a relationship's end. Finally, a remounting of "Becoming American," loosely based on the history of company dancer Katia Chupashko Norri, which debuted in October to critical acclaim. "Hyphen" and "Becoming American" also incorporate video projection, which has become a company hallmark.
Burgess says he selected these works because they embrace questions of belonging. "I think it's this really profound question, and all of us have this moment of facing this question in our lives, so I wanted to choose dances that would look at it from different angles," he says.
The choreographer also fosters a sense of belonging among his 13 core dancers, creating a collaborative environment in which everyone has an increased stake. Dancer Ricardo Alvarez, who has studied both dance and graphic design, designs some of the company's image projections. Dancer Kelly Moss Southall does set design. And Burgess relies on his dancers for inspiration.
"Many dancers are curated and invited into a company because a choreographer can see them in a particular role," he says. "The way I grew up, what inspires me are intelligent dancers that are able to converse. They have an interesting cultural background and have an interesting presence onstage as well as being very fine technicians."
In rehearsal, it's easy to see what he means. His dancers vary in age, height, stature and ethnicity, and each evokes a unique quality onstage. But their execution is where the cohesion lies.
"If somebody tosses their hand, we're looking for the effort with which it's tossed, speed, dynamic range," Burgess says. "That's what will make all these people look the same. That's what's interesting. Dancers can kick their legs high, but I'm looking for this other layer of knowledge."
What's on the horizon for Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company? Burgess hopes to extend the company's season and continue to tell stories of the multifaceted "micro-cultures" within an increasingly diverse country.
"It's what I've always known and what I continue to love."