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Dana Tai Soon Burgess and 'Charlie Chan and the Mysteries of Love'

Dancers with Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company rehearse "Charlie Chan and The Mystery of Love" at the Georgetown Day High School.

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"The ability to be out in that community was just not there when I was coming of age," he says. " . . . It's taken me years to talk about it."

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Some families in his neighborhood had been in the region for hundreds of years. He didn't speak the Spanglish. There were hardly any other Asians. And he wasn't macho. Kids picked on him.

Burgess found solace in weekend television. There were the kung fu movies, steeped in "a masculine perspective through physicality," he says. Charlie Chan was a more appealing type of masculine: "This quiet detective, not doing martial arts but studying his environment. He was much more cerebral."

Burgess loved Chan because he was calm and watchful, not aggressive, with a delicacy that nowadays has been called effeminate. He was a man who "really looked at symbols, how symbols or clues can lead to a larger understanding of a mystery," Burgess says. It's a fascination he shared, and one he can indulge in his choreography. Dance, after all, thrives on metaphors, small details, abstraction.

Take the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose unfathomable stone likeness stared down at Burgess every time he walked by the church down the street from his house. What kind of magic did she possess? he wondered. So he put her in "Charlie Chan." There's a statue of her on the TV that glows at a significant moment, and one of the dancers embodies her as a kind of psychopomp, traveling between fantasy and reality, giving Alvarez what he needs to navigate his life: the notebook, the crystal ball. Other dancers step in with magnifying glasses.

A magnifying glass is a potent symbol for a man obsessed with detail. Chan-like, Burgess watches in silence, then steps in for close examination. He wants a sense of weight in an outstretched arm. The elbow should be crooked just so. And focus, but don't glare.

"The kick to the work is that it has that old-fashioned show look from the '30s and '40s," he tells the dancers, "but if we can do a gradation on that, so it's not cheesy . . .

"It's supposed to be on this funny edge of dark humor," he murmurs, coming back to watch another run-through. "And that's a hard place to coach."

"Dana is very keen about what the gestures convey," says Alvarez, 30. "The subtleties of how is your head posed, and where is the contrapposto in your form. I hadn't worked with a choreographer before who took such time and patience in where your focus goes to, or your hand position."

Burgess isn't impressed by big movements; it's the nuances, he says, that make you think. "To get the audience prepared for a deeper message, you need that quiet moment to contemplate something."

Finding his footing

Burgess is the unusual artist who has not changed his painstaking style, even as bold moves, athleticism and splayed-out flexibility have become vogue in dance. Perhaps that's because he started late, and before stumbling into dance he'd had a lot of time to think about who he was (more Chan-ish). And who he wasn't (Bruce Lee). That was the positive outcome of the turmoil in Santa Fe: It pushed him onto a successful path.

To help Burgess cope with the bullying, his parents sent him to martial arts school, where he met other Asian kids and got hooked on controlled physical activity. Then, in his senior year of high school, he met a boy, a German exchange student, and fell miserably in love.

"We had this strange romance, but it was very elusive and extremely secretive. I could never figure out what was going on," he says. "That was a very difficult year."

It was also the catalyst that pushed him out of Santa Fe -- "Where do I go in order to be this? I needed to get to a larger city" -- and into dance. At the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, he started taking dance classes. Finally he had found his tribe. He belonged! In the intimacy of the dance world, Burgess says, there is "an incredible safety net."

Mystery solved. And what do you know -- it's just as Chan once said: "Sorrow, like bad weather, in time will pass and be forgotten."

Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love and Island

will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. Tickets $8 to $22. 202-269-1600 or http://www.danceplace.org.


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