Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company perform 'Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love'

AT WORK: Sarah Halzack, right, and Kelly Southall rehearse.
AT WORK: Sarah Halzack, right, and Kelly Southall rehearse. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010

There's wisdom in viewing a painful past with a sense of humor. It's better on the psyche and, if you're crafting a memory play, it gives the audience a much better time. Take the wit, warmth and maturity that underpin "Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love," a new work by choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess that premiered at Dance Place this weekend -- a piece about awkwardness that unspools with the grace of a classic musical comedy.

Burgess, who founded Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company here in 1992, has long been one of the area's most interesting and individualistic artists, but with this work he deserves to be crowned poet laureate of Washington dance.

There is always a refined visual quality to his works, which center on Asian themes -- as in "Island," a grim and somewhat murky piece about the cruelties suffered by the Chinese interned at the turn of the last century on Angel Island near San Francisco, which formed the second half of this weekend's program. But in "Charlie Chan," Burgess matches his stylized choreography with a powerful dramatic coherence -- an especially rare gift. With a few resonant scenes and provocative clues, he offers a window on his youth in Santa Fe, where, as a Korean American newcomer to a largely Latino community, he was a conspicuous outsider with few role models.

Few, that is, except Charlie Chan, old Hollywood's version of a Chinese detective, known for his pseudo-Confucian pronouncements and infallible problem-solving. Burgess watched endless reruns of Chan films on his family's black-and-white Zenith. Chan may seem hopelessly corny today, but Burgess's work is an affectionate ode to the character who became an imaginary friend of sorts -- the man who famously combined "Western science and Eastern wisdom," but who, for Burgess, was more: not a kung fu outlaw but a thinker, who merged a restrained, introspective model of masculinity with an artist's vocabulary of symbols and clues.

The boyish, doe-eyed Ricardo Alvarez takes on the Burgess role in "Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love," and you couldn't ask for a more sympathetic hero to lead us through a swirl of adolescent confusion and awakening sexual identity, as he's wooed by women in nightclub satin. They fill the stage as if they've stepped out of a 1930s movie, but Alvarez falls for another man (Kelly Moss Southall, whose cool remove makes him the perfect lost ideal).

Luckily, though, the chorus of beauties in halter tops and sweetheart necklines sticks around for most of the piece, stepping in with magnifying glasses to underscore Alvarez's search for acceptance, and forming a swelling, sympathetic backdrop to his duets with Southall. Old-movie artifacts are thick in this piece, and that's one of its chief charms. Chan clips play on a vintage TV and are projected on the backdrop; there's a crystal ball that ushers in a seance. A hypnotism clears the way for Alvarez/Burgess to move ahead.

But this piece rides on far more than atmosphere, rich as that is. What's especially fascinating is its blend of prewar nostalgia and the gimlet-eyed view of the postmodernist, so that along with the romance and moonlight, every scene has just enough edge. Are the women really on Alvarez's side? They may strike cheesecake poses, but they give him hard looks. Burgess's expressive use of his small cast -- just nine dancers -- is a revelation here, and his assuredness makes me want to see him work on a larger scale. What might he do with a musical, and more resources, more dancers?

But I wouldn't want to see this small-scale jewel get any bigger. Dance Place's intimate black-box theater was the perfect venue, where you felt like you were part of Burgess's living room. His designers captured the mood and era with small but sure touches. Judy Hansen's costumes evoked the smoldering elegance of fine clothing but allowed the women to move freely; her muted palette of blues and greens put an apt contemporary twist on the pearly monotones of old films. Alvarez not only danced; he, along with Laura McDonald and Sara Brown, also created the video montages, which drew us into a retro ballroom, old photos of Santa Fe and a night sky that gradually emptied of stars. McDonald and Burgess joined forces on the song list, which included Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich and Ella Fitzgerald.

It's a remarkable piece of theater. But its poignancy and delicacy are told on a micro level, in the smallest movements, something Chan and his magnifying glass would surely appreciate. Burgess employs a fragmented movement style -- a dancer will strike an elegant pose, then crumple slightly, like a store mannequin whose joints have given way -- and this gives the dancers a briefly artificial look, as if time had hiccupped and we were seeing a living moment turn into still photography. But as the dancing shifts between natural and stylized movement, it has the force not only of memory but of a mutable memory: one that has been lived over and over, analyzed and subtly altered in the mind each time.

Only now the memory has been loosed upon the stage. Surely the triumphant note in this work comes from the fact that its pain has been eased in the telling.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company