In "Gandhara: East West Passages," which premiered Friday at the Kennedy Center, choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess finds an inspirational soul mate in Alexander the Great. In some ways, the idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Burgess, like the subject of his newest work, is young, ambitious and uncannily talented. He is both a magnetic and brilliant performer and a choreographer of vivid economy and eloquence.
In "Gandhara" and its companion piece, "Helix," which opened the program at the Terrace Theater, Burgess assembled an impressive cadre of collaborators. Both pieces incorporate large, movable abstract sculptures by local artist John Dreyfuss. Lighting is by the internationally renowned Jennifer Tipton; the beautifully spare costumes are by designer Han Feng.
It's easy to see why the story of Alexander's conquest of Gandhara (a region on the upper Pakistan-Afghanistan border) and his subsequent fascination with Eastern culture would appeal to Burgess. He is of Asian heritage and his dance company, Moving Forward, focuses on Asian themes. A historical construct for the East-meets-West thread around which Burgess has woven his artistic identity must have exerted a strong pull indeed.
There is much that works in this piece, commissioned by the Kennedy Center as part of its "Something New" series. Brief glimpses of Alexander's childhood, early adulthood and points along his trail of conquests are spotlighted in evocative ways, each sketch like a few quick brush strokes from a master's hand. We see the winsome, inquisitive boy, danced by the sparrowlike Daniel Applebaum. Burgess is the young king on the cusp of adulthood, urged on by his strong-willed mother (danced with evident cruelty by Pamela Matthews). He subdues his Persian rival Darius -- Daniel Phoenix Singh, dressed bewilderingly like an Indian Kathak dancer in loose fuchsia trousers and ankle bells -- and woos an eastern wife, Roxanne (Natalie Moffett Smith).
The piece is visually striking, with Dreyfuss's huge curving sculpture in the background serving as a platform and prop for the dancers. Burgess's movement style -- clean lines, sharp, clear gestures -- helps keep the story focused and uncluttered.
But "Gandhara" is ultimately an unconvincing statement. One of history's most indomitable military geniuses is a curious dance subject by any stretch of the imagination. Burgess aims to extract the poetic notes of Alexander's achievement, but he does so in a mostly literal, narrative way that invites historical comparison. His depiction of the conqueror as a blithely frolicsome youth shoved into action by a domineering mother seems improbable. Most of all, one gains little insight into the heights of glory and depths of barbarity that characterized Alexander's life.
The pairing of the dance and the sculpture is also less than satisfying here. Unlike in the more conceptually sound "Helix," where you couldn't imagine one without the other, in "Gandhara" the massive shape is not integral to the work. True, it is manipulated for certain scenic effects -- the dancers climb on it and emerge from beneath it, but they could do the same with a heap of papier-mache boulders. There is no metaphoric connection between the structure and the movement. Combine that with the fact that the foam-and-carbon-fiber piece is of scant aesthetic appeal -- it's lead-gray and clunky-looking with a pronounced though mystifying phallic shape -- and one senses that more could have been made of the collaboration.
Burgess's exquisite sensitivity to tone and nuance is brought more successfully to bear in "Helix." It premiered last year as a solo, but Burgess has newly expanded it into a duet for himself and Sarah Craft, improving upon what had already been a work of glowing beauty.
In "Helix," another Dreyfuss sculpture, this one bone-white, stands in the middle of the stage like a great, strong tree. A large opening at its center beckons like a portal to another world. The work, in fact, suggests a yearning for a higher existence. We follow the awakening of an organism and its slow evolution -- along the way unleashing a catalogue of organic shapes and traits, from watery slithering to tentative stalking.
Christopher Nickels's music is mysterious and spacey as Burgess is revealed at the sculpture's base. As he uncurls himself, his fingers ripple and wave like a sea creature's tentacles, and his arms billow like wings. He periodically strikes poses as evocative as Dreyfuss's sculpture, echoing its curves and hollows, but he's rarely still. At one point, he swivels the sculpture, revealing its asymmetry and improbable balance, then disappears behind it as Craft emerges.
Craft is well matched in the fluid use of her arms, her intensity and her physical skill. When the two pair up in a kind of abstract mating dance, there's a ritualistic feel to their interaction; Burgess isn't one for ostentatious displays of passion. The true tenderness comes when the two climb up into the oval eye of the structure, their inevitable destination, and the image of peacefulness, as the lights dim on their nestled forms, resonates like a sigh.