Choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess pares away movement the way a stonemason chisels an unfinished block. What's left when he sets a work onstage is highly designed, sculptural and spare. Notice the way his eight white-clad dancers walk carefully, steadily, purposefully placing one bare foot before the other. Catch the cock of an elbow, the turn of a head, the slight but sudden lift of a shoulder. Admire the white valise and painted pineapples the dancers carry to illuminate Burgess's tale. It's in small ways that Burgess allows his physical lexicon to make a bold impact.
On Friday Burgess returned "Tracings," a contemplative homage to his Korean roots, to Washington, where it premiered last year at the Kennedy Center in honor of the 100th anniversary of the first wave of Korean immigration to Hawaii. Since then, Burgess, assistant professor of dance at George Washington University, has stripped the work down further. At the Lincoln Theatre, "Tracings" took on a softly filtered glow, reflecting the creamy whites of lighting designers Maja White and Jennifer Tipton and costumer Judy Hansen. Some of the strongest images, though, have lost their potency.
Burgess's forebears found hardship in their new homeland working on Hawaii's plantations. A circular arm gesture followed by a forceful slice -- the hacking of a pineapple from its base -- is emblematic of this memory, yet like other powerful moments it has been glossed over in Burgess's trademark continuous flow. Joining the company as the work opens and closes is Anna Kang Burgess, the choreographer's mother, clad in a traditional Korean hangbok, its white connoting commoner status. Her upright posture and dignified presence deepen the work's ties to personal history but don't return the uneasy feelings of displacement, the urgency of leaving home, the fear of entering uncharted territory. Echoing the white-on-white visual design, "Tracings" now seems dreamier, less forceful.
Burgess also revived a quartet of small jewels: works by the pioneering choreographer Michio Ito, modest studies that recall modern dance's roots as a solo form. "Pizzicati," from 1916, features Burgess performing clean-lined semaphoric arm gestures to an excerpt from Delibes' "Sylvia." Sara Craft Lebret's performance in "Ave Maria," a 1914 work, transformed simple gestures -- lunges, uplifted arms -- into a deeply spiritual meditation. During his dozen years as company director, Burgess has purposefully mined his Asian American heritage. By bridging Eastern and Western aesthetic sensibilities, his company gives voice to stories that bear telling.