And yet: This artist — not only a Washington prize, but a national dance treasure — deserves better. Much better. The reason Burgess was such a wreck backstage was that something had gone wrong with the sound during the performance of his solo “Dariush.” While dancer Katia Chupashko Norri was onstage furling and unfurling her arms like silk, twisting herself through complicated and fascinating visual rhythms, the CD of Sheila Chandra’s velvet chanting was noisily stuttering and skipping, as if a DJ were in the sound booth scratching vinyl.
Still, Norri had things well under control. Her inner musicality as she whipped through the steps was unaffected, and her focused, quicksilver performance was one of the bravest I’ve seen.
I mention the sound fiasco not because it was the most remarkable part of the program — it wasn’t — but to underscore the point that an artist of Burgess’s high caliber and consistent excellence ought to be performing on the grandest stages rather than in a small, tucked-away corner, whatever its appeal of coziness and nostalgia.
From his very beginnings here, landing in 1989 from his New Mexico home, Burgess stood out as a dancer, with an unforgettable way of moving. He was at once calm and unrestrained, as if wind, fire and water fluctuated inside. When I first saw his company in 1993, its promise as a cultural and artistic force was clear. Burgess, a Korean American, set out on the bold course of telling Asian American stories in dance — in its first years, he called his group “Moving Forward,” with all the underlying meaning of revelation and progress against stereotypes that the phrase implies. And he has done exactly that. His works have grown sharper and cleaner year by year, and his audience — by no means limited to the Asian community — also has grown.
Back in 1995, he told me in an interview: “What I’m trying to do right now is codify and explore a movement lexicon which is really my own.” He’s achieved that, too. His dancers move with an arresting mix of the innate smoothness and control that Burgess possessed as a dancer (he retired from the stage a few years ago), the crisp precision of the martial-arts training of his youth and modern-dance influences. Chief among these is the subtle aesthetic of Japanese choreographer Michio Ito. (Burgess revived a handful of Ito works in an illuminating 1996 program.)
Burgess’s unwavering thematic focus, deep investigation, unique vocabulary, choreographic craftsmanship, plus the equally lofty contributions from the designers with whom he collaborates: These all add up to a level of accomplishment few dance artists can match. And each of these elements was present in the weekend’s 20th-anniversary performances, which included the ensemble works “Becoming American,” drawing on Norri’s experience of being adopted from Korea, and “Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love,” springing from Burgess’s childhood fascination with the Hollywood detective. There was also a premiere, “Caverns.”