Retired Burgess Hasn't Lost A Step

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. performed four works over the weekend, including a new one, "Hyphen," that featured a wall of TV screens showing flickering black-and-white clips of vintage video art. But it wasn't the mysterious, smoky tones of these pieces that had people talking Friday night at Lisner Auditorium: It was that Burgess himself had danced, too.

You don't expect fireworks in a Burgess concert; his work is all about whispered ambiguity rather than large-scale excitement. But he stepped in as a last-minute replacement for another dancer, and his brief, pantherlike duet with Maria Del Carmen Valle-Riestra in "Chino Latino" showcased a physically powerful aspect of his art -- one that had been sorely missed in the two years since he retired from the stage with a bad back.

Burgess's choreography is so full of restraint and quietude that an evening of it can lose momentum here and there. But his own physical gifts -- that sculpted upper body, the sensual heat and prowling grace of his movements -- make a bold statement.

In his choreography as in his dancing, Burgess is proof that you can be bold without a bullhorn, that original thought is more provocative than the crowd-pleasing witticism or the sound bite. In the 16 years since he founded his company here, Burgess has emerged as the area's leading dance artist, consistently following his own path and producing distinctive, well-considered works.

This isn't dancing that bursts into space and makes a big deal of itself. Burgess's works are like carefully arranged shadow boxes, with a prop or two, evocative lighting and simple costumes framing quiet, introspective moves. Subtle feelings are conveyed through contrasts -- fluid, rounded contours or angular ones, in which the dancers look like jointed models, moving through a stop-action series of postures. The result is a stylized visual study, describing emotional states with the most fragmented and minimal means.

This program was no exception. Each work -- "Chino Latino," reworked from last year; "Khaybet," the lambent acceptance-of-death solo from 2003; "Meditations," commissioned last spring by Ballet Memphis; and "Hyphen" -- centered on ideas of belonging and reconciliation. It's a common thread for this son of a Korean American mother and Irish-Scottish father who grew up in a Latino community in Santa Fe.

The theatrical and fascinating "Hyphen" shows us a newly confident Burgess, combining video, light, sound and movement with dramatic effect. It most directly addresses the issue of fitting in, using those stark, unsettling 1960s video images by Korean-born artist Nam June Paik. You may know Paik's bright, wall-spanning TV-screen installation "Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii," in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which defines his adopted nation with whimsical loops of video images.

Burgess uses Paik's simpler early work in "Hyphen," from a time when the newly arrived artist was part of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus movement (which inspired John Cage and Andy Warhol, among others). The snippets we see on a large screen and later on multiple stacked TV sets are shaky, nervous and segmented: A face is partially covered by hands, or halves of two different faces are fitted together. At times the dancers mimic the gestures in the videos; in their dancing as on the screens, there's a disquieting sense of obsessiveness.

But to say "Hyphen" directly addresses anything would overstate. Burgess's work is so understated that while you come away with an emotional sense, it may be hard to put your finger on the idea that inspired it. That's of little importance. His best pieces work as abstractions, as "Chino Latino" does -- its jumping-off point is the Asian outsider in Latino culture, but the highly stylized mambo and crackly, timeworn vocals by Carlos Gardel and other Latin singers bring a universal sense of yearning to life.

Similarly, what's sharpest in "Hyphen" is a general feeling of searching and acute self-consciousness.

The dancing starts small -- the 11 performers stand in individual squares of light, slightly bent and twisted away from the audience -- then grows to an unusually physical pitch. At one point the dancers, in costume designer Judy Hansen's charcoal trousers and slim black tops, arrange the stage with Eastern cultural artifacts -- large lacquered baskets and ceremonial vessels -- but they look out of place in this world of sleek, monotone modernity. (The dark, impersonal atmosphere is enhanced by Ryuichi Sakamoto's music, Laura MacDonald's sound montage and Maja E. White's lighting.) At the end, when the face of one of the dancers replaces the Paik images on the screens, she is inward-looking, peaceful. Fitting in, Burgess seems to say, happens first inside.

This kind of personal reconciliation is a Burgess signature. "Meditations," created for a ballet company but retooled for six of his own dancers, movingly explores the painful cooling of romance. (The music is Lou Harrison's "La Koro Sutro," a piece for gamelan, and "Suite for Violin.") In the last section, titled "Transcendence," the couples slowly bow to one another, then lean in for a tender but arms'-length embrace. It's a sophisticated, adult break-up; the emotions have been recalibrated, but respect and affection remain.

This point of view also informed the modest way Burgess stepped into his dancing role in "Chino Latino," utterly without fanfare: The highest honor lies not in grandiose displays, but in coming to a quiet, well-ordered resolution.

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