Dana Tai Soon Burgess and company bring National Portrait Gallery exhibit to life

October 23, 2013

It’s just before 11:30 on a Saturday morning, and a small crowd has gathered around the National Portrait Gallery’s entrance waiting for the doors to open on the museum’s “Dancing the Dream” exhibit.

As visitors stream through the hallway that houses the show, one room in particular pulls them in. Josephine Baker’s “A Message From the Man in the Moon” issues from a room painted Broadway red. Four black-clad modern dancers, members of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, are moving through the space, their bodies’ graceful interpretation of the music suffused with a touch of chorus-line flair.

In the center of the room, choreographer Burgess is all taut concentration as he guides the dancers’ movements. The piece in progress, called “Homage,” is designed to reflect the theme of the museum’s exhibit — the history of American culture as expressed through dance. Museumgoers crowd the room’s three doorways to watch and sidle along the walls of a room so small an observer could reach out and touch the dancers, becoming a de facto participant in the rehearsal.

That’s exactly what Burgess intended.

“I want them to have a special moment that they’ve never had before,” he said. “That they’re let into the creative process, so they can ruminate on it and that’ll resonate with them. So that the next time they go to a dance performance — or if they’ve never been before, it’ll pique their interest to go — they’ll have been part of watching a rehearsal process. It really feels like our studio here at the National Portrait Gallery is an incubator for a new piece of choreography.”


Dancers stretch and visitors watch as Dana Tai Soon Burgesst, center, directs dancers Kelly Moss Southall, left and Sarah Halzack at the National Portrait Gallery. The museum and dance company are collaborating on the dance project. (Liz Vance)

The museumgoers, some of whom were hesitant at first to approach the dancers, left the room entranced. Mary Lou Kluger of Port Washington, N.Y., marveled at their control. “This is performance art,” Kluger said. “They’re part of the exhibit. And yet they have to maintain their focus and not really pay attention to all the people who are watching them, because they’ve got to learn the piece. So it’s quite a lot going on.”

Gayle Bernhaut, in town from New Jersey for a Georgetown University Law Center reunion, said, “I thought it was cool to bring the exhibit to life, and to be that close to see the creative process happening.”

Fellow Georgetown alumna Julie Weinstein, from New York state, agreed. “It adds a new dimension to the museum experience that I really enjoyed.”

The collaboration between museum and dance company grew out of a conversation between Burgess and historian and exhibit curator Amy Henderson after she saw his troupe perform a year and a half ago. Henderson and Burgess discussed “how to create a living museum experience as opposed to the traditional static wall,” Henderson said.

Henderson said “Dancing the Dream” as a whole, including the dancers’ live rehearsals, is an attempt to portray a cultural-historical art form that, by its nature, is not easily represented in a museum setting. “It captures American culture in motion, just the way other artists like Whitman and the Gershwins in their [respective] fields captured the currents of America,” she said. “The thing about dance is that it’s so fleeting.”

The government shutdown, which closed the doors of the Portrait Gallery, postponed the exhibit’s opening. When the government reopened last Thursday, however, “all we had to do was put the red carpet down,” Henderson said, referring to the Hollywood-style red carpet running the length of the exhibition hall. In the interim, Burgess said the dancers rehearsed off-site at venues including the dance studio at Georgetown Day School, where the performers are currently artists-in-residence.

The company’s open rehearsals are a new step for museumgoers and dancers alike. “It’s a little unusual for us to have the audience so close up, and to have them be in a position where they can walk in and out at any time,” said Sarah Halzack, who has been with the troupe for seven years in addition to working for The Washington Post. “But it’s very helpful in some ways, because the way Dana has constructed the piece, we’re referencing a lot of the images that you see, so we can walk up to the pieces and draw from the images of the exhibit while we’re in here.”

Kelly Southall, another seven-year veteran of the company, said museum audiences give him the opportunity to integrate the adrenaline rush that comes with being watched into the choreography. “It’s nice, because we get a little head start,” he said. “We don’t have to wait until opening night.”

Burgess is live-streaming the rehearsals on the company’s Web site, www.dtsbdc.com, and hopes visitors will leave comments about what they see. The choreographer said onlookers’ reactions to watching the company dance are both personal and universal. “I think our fundamental form of communication is movement,” he said, “and so that’s the bridge between all language differences and socioeconomic differences — it’s that humanity dances.”

The company’s open rehearsals continue from 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. Saturdays through Nov. 2; “Dancing the Dream” is on view through July 13, 2014. “Homage” will be performed Nov. 16 in the National Portrait Gallery’s courtyard, and at the Kennedy Center Terrace in February.

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