Dana Tai Soon Burgess knows a haunting image when he sees one. His new work, “Becoming American,” opens with the small, expressionless face of an Asian child beamed onto a screen. As the camera pans out, it appears the child is holding a number, like a preschooler in a police lineup.
Korean orphan K85-869, now known as Katia Chupashko Norri, stood onstage at Dance Place below her own picture Friday night. She’s now 28 and ready to tell her adoption story through dance.
In the hands of a lesser choreographer, this piece could be a maudlin mess, the modern dance equivalent of an after-school special. But Burgess, a professor at George Washington University, is pretty much the best dancemaker around, and what he’s made here is a beautiful allegory about alienation and acceptance. Five ensemble dancers appear dressed all in black and wearing Japanese theater masks. They look as unsettling as a sea of white faces would to a 4-year-old fresh off the plane from Asia.
There’s more mime work than footwork in “Becoming American,” and while it’s interesting to see Burgess expand his vocabulary, the gestures are sometimes gratuitous and often unclear. There’s a striking scene of Norri in an English class, though, stretching nervously while a voiceover hisses the letter “S” and asks the students to repeat words like “spectacular.”
The work closes with the family at dinner. Kelly Moss Southall and Sarah Halzack play Norri’s graceful, loving parents. (Halzack, a Web producer at the Post, occasionally writes for Style.) They engage in an elaborate spoon-and-fork patty-cake while a confused Norri watches, then takes imaginary gulps from a rice bowl.
The parting image is of Norri embracing both her bowl and a plate. Like “Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love,” the charming 2010 Burgess work also on the program, “Becoming American” feels a bit abbreviated. Good choreographers create a world and keep viewers there. Even when there are happy endings, it’s hard to walk away.