'Hyphen': Separation Anxiety

Choreographer Explores Sensitive Racial and Cultural Gaps

Connie Lin Fink, rear, and Kelly Moss Southall perform in Dana Tai Soon Burgess's
Connie Lin Fink, rear, and Kelly Moss Southall perform in Dana Tai Soon Burgess's "Hyphen," which features videos that home in on body parts -- a hand, foot or face. (By Jeff Watts)
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By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2008; Page WE47

Dana Tai Soon Burgess has lived with a hyphen for as long as he can remember. The District-based choreographer, a professor of dance at George Washington University, asserts his identity as the son of an Irish-Scottish American father and a Korean-born mother. When he was 6, his family moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where the boy with Asian features found himself cast in the role of a double outsider: He was an Anglo in a Spanish-speaking environment and an Asian in a Caucasian neighborhood.

Those experiences inform Burgess's latest work, "Hyphen," which has its world premiere tonight at GWU's Lisner Auditorium. "This issue of just feeling confused about my world and struggling over and over with trying to figure it out and trying to fit in is at the core of 'Hyphen,' " he remarked recently after a rehearsal in a steamy, narrow studio in downtown Bethesda.

As a choreographer, Burgess, 40, has pondered his multiracial background ("Does the hyphen connect or separate our hybrid identities?") and how it has shaped his artistic aesthetic, which draws on modern dance and dance forms from Indonesia, China, Japan and Korea.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. has attained critical acclaim around the world for merging Asian and American artistic ideals, but Burgess still finds that marrying his sometimes competing identities is a challenge for him and his dancer colleagues, who represent a United Nations of backgrounds: Chinese American to Japanese, Swiss to Peruvian, American to Korean.

"It's an everyday struggle," says dancer Connie Lin Fink, the company's associate artistic director. Her mother was born in Korea, her American father was in the military and the family traveled the world. "The first time I ever noticed that I was different was . . . maybe at the age of 6. As a half-Korean living in Korea, there was this separation in terms of family and community," she says. "When I'm with my family there was acceptance, but outside my family in the community there wasn't." Even now, Fink says, "there's not a clear identity for me. I don't want to step on my mother's toes, and I want to respect my father's culture, but it still feels that I don't know exactly where I stand."

That's where "Hyphen" begins: extrapolating the ethnic, racial and cultural identities of the dancers and moving forward. The piece features historical footage by famed video artist Nam June Paik, the Korean American who is credited with creating the video art form during his time working with the avant-garde Fluxus art movement in the late 1950s. These simple black-and-white shorts, the "Fluxus films," call attention to ideas of identity in the way they home in on body parts -- a hand, foot or face. The accompanying musical collage by Laura McDonald wrestles with identity, too, featuring compositions by Ryuichi Sakamoto (he wrote the score for the film "The Last Emperor," among others) and clips of the dancers' voices speaking in various languages about what it means to live with a hyphen.

"I noticed my work is about the concept of the outsider and outsider art," Burgess says. "I still love beauty, but there's always a sense that someone is not quite fitting in."

Fink says she came to understand the need to reach beyond the barrier the hyphen creates: "We don't take the time to really sit, listen and hear somebody's story to understand where they're coming from, to know how they act, what they say. . . . We've learned so much during this process about how we connect."

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. www.lisner.org. 202-397-7328. Today and Saturday at 8 p.m. $28.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company