Dana Tai Soon Burgess’s “America’s Cloud” treats Civil War grief

You could say the three works that Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company performed over the weekend at George Washington University’s Marvin Theatre dealt with the human cost of national trauma. You could also say they centered on American culture, or death. But what was most movingly apparent in Burgess’s “Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love,” “Island” and his newest piece, “America’s Cloud,” was an optimistic note: the human desire to console.

“Charlie Chan,” which premiered last fall, is a deeply symbolic look at Burgess’s youthful fascination with the Hollywood detective, whose pseudo-Confucian wisdom was a modern tonic for an Asian child growing up in New Mexico. In this episodic dance, glamourous women wielding stock props from Chan films — magnifying glasses, cocktails — help Burgess’s alter ego find his true self. The simpler, darker but powerfully cohesive “Island” depicted the turn-of-the-century mistreatment of Chinese inhabitants of the Angel Island Immigration Station off the coast of San Francisco. Here, the prisoners are a source of strength for one another.

And in “America’s Cloud,” an even more intimate, tightly focused work, a Civil War mourner is encircled by her community as she grieves for her dead lover.

“America’s Cloud” was first performed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as a response to a sculpture by Spencer Finch. For the Marvin Theatre engagement, one of Burgess’s dancers, Kelly Moss Southall, created a cloudlike sculpture, actually two clouds made of some kind of grayish translucent film, crumpled and suspended above the dancers like wads of cellophane. This was a curiously provocative image; dance decor does not usually enclose the overhead space. This mysterious substance seemed both to weigh upon and emanate from the dancers, like a manifestation of sadness.

As is typical of Burgess’s works, the emotional tone here was understated; this was also true to the restrained age from which “America’s Cloud” was derived. The sense of withheld feeling was echoed in the well-chosen Stephen Foster songs that accompanied the piece, wistfully romantic odes such as “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Gentle Annie,” “Wilt Thou Be Gone, Love?” and others.

But while many of Burgess’s works have an angular look, there was a distinct lyricism in this piece. The women who gathered around the bereaved Sarah Halzack, hovering close but maintaining a respectful distance, might have been angels — borrowing from ballet’s elusive, dreamy qualities, they extended their bare legs high and let them drift down weightlessly. If emotions were suppressed, limbs were not, and the occasional moments of physical unfolding were beautifully in keeping with the graceful calm of the piece. This was further underscored in Judy Hansen’s fine costumes, which suggested a softened, streamlined 1860s look, in muted shades of violet, gray and blue.

There was a sense of quiet waiting in “America’s Cloud,” a mood shared with “Charlie Chan” and “Island.” In Burgess’s view, dealing with loss, or being lost, is best resolved not with histrionics but with patience. And with an openness to those who want to help. Out of quiet and human sensitivity, he seems to be telling us, comes clarity.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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