No matter the locale, the ballet world uses French terms for steps. But modern dance has no standard vocabulary: The word choice and the tongue are dependent upon the choreographer or teacher. In Peru this summer, Washington choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess worked with Spanish-speaking dancers; his body was pressed into service as translator, testing whether dance really is a universal language.
Speaking by phone from Peru, Burgess said, "In the States, I could describe moving sequentially through the body to project an emotion, but ultimately I'd have to show it. Here I immediately start showing with my body, instead of getting dragged down by the intellectual conversation. In an interesting way, certain things are harder and others have more clarity."
Burgess had ample time to ponder the role of language, spoken and danced, during his six weeks in Peru. While there, he toured with his company, Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Company, created a new work for the National Ballet of Peru, and taught a full roster of master classes. Burgess returned to Washington Aug. 1 and is now back in the studio rehearsing, preparing for another trip to South America. (In September the company will present three performances in Ecuador.)
What made Burgess's Peru trip possible was the State Department's American Cultural Specialists program. The program, which sent 66 artists abroad last year, promotes cross-cultural exchange through the arts. The participants, selected by State Department staff in consultation with cultural organizations such as the Kennedy Center, represent the United States abroad while teaching, lecturing and creating new work.
Burgess, 36, founded his company in 1992 after dancing for San Francisco-based choreographer June Watanabe. He gained national recognition for his adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale," which the Kennedy Center presented as part of its educational touring program. Burgess has worked, too, on projects in Panama and Pakistan, also supported by the State Department.
"There's somehow this common bond through the artwork itself that creates exchange," Burgess said. "It bonds different cultures where we have a commonality."
The American Cultural Specialists program is one contemporary example of the federally sponsored international tour, a practice that was at its height during the Cold War period and has always functioned with a combination of public and private funding. Burgess's project relied on support from the Meyer Foundation and, in Peru, from cultural institutions. George Washington University, where Burgess is on faculty, provided a fellowship that enabled him to teach at the University of Lima and in private studios.
Burgess first traveled to Peru for the program in June 2003, staying for three weeks and restaging four previously created works for the Peru National Ballet with assistance from dancers Sarah Craft and Tati Valle-Riestra. Through the U.S. Embassy in Peru, Olga Shimazaki, artistic director for the National Ballet, had requested an American choreographer for a new ballet. From various applicants, Shimazaki selected Burgess, in part, she says, for the "spiritual" quality of his choreography.
Chris Teal, assistant cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Peru, said, "Last year's project was a very short period of time, and Dana didn't get to stay and see the work he set performed. Based on last year's success, we made another request to invite Dana back."
This year, Burgess was able to stay through the ballet's performances, and his company performed in conjunction with Lima's International Dance Festival.
Burgess and Shimazaki agree that their companies could not have collaborated without the assistance of the State Department and the embassy. The logistical and financial burden would have been too great.
"It's possible to just tour to [international] festivals -- do a performance and leave," Burgess said. "But to do a multilayered cultural exchange with depth is very complicated."
Burgess's company, like most small modern-dance troupes, has no administrative staff. Burgess and his rehearsal director, Anne Marie Sidney, and volunteer board members share those duties. For this year's tour and residency, embassy staff and other officials in various Peruvian cities coordinated scheduling, travel inside Peru, and a multitude of other tasks that language and cultural barriers could have made confusing.
"One day we weren't sure we were going to have rehearsal because there was a strike. Nobody could get into town," said Burgess. "We needed logistical support from the embassy just to figure out if that one rehearsal was going to happen."
Each moment of rehearsal was precious. Burgess, with the help of his bilingual company members Valle-Riestra and Leonardo Giron Torres, had to rehearse the four works from last year's project and stage a brand-new 14-minute ballet with 11 dancers. Unlike professional ballet dancers in the United States, those in Peru do not rehearse for full days. Dancers take an hour- and - a -half class, rehearse until 2 p.m., rush to other jobs, then return in the evening to perform.
Dance critic and historian George Jackson traveled with the company as an observer on behalf of the State Department. "The unfamiliarity with Dana's [movement] vocabulary and the fact that the dancers were tired after vigorous morning class and squeezing in the rehearsal before they go off to their other jobs made the first days challenging," he said. "But Dana was very patient and he won them over."
By the end of the third week, Shimazaki said, her dancers came to talk about Burgess, saying that "they were happy with the way he treats them. It's somehow different than other choreographers they've had."
While Burgess's mix of Eastern and Western aesthetics in modern dance was new for the dancers, Shimazaki found the work appealing and some aspects of it familiar. Born in Peru to a family of Japanese heritage, Shimazaki has studied Japanese traditional dance and recognized elements of it in Burgess's work.
The desire to introduce another culture into his choreography led to the development of "Acorralada," Burgess's work for the National Ballet. He collaborated with visual artist Eduardo Tokeshi, another Peruvian artist of Japanese heritage, and chose Alberto Ginastera's "Estancia Suites" as musical accompaniment, specifically selecting a South American composer. "Estancia" was on the National Symphony Orchestra of Peru's schedule for the upcoming season, and the orchestra played for all of the ballet's performances.
Technically, Burgess was able to move in some new directions as well.
"The music is very romantic, fast and larger than life," he says. "There's lots of movement in this work that's very fast all the time. My company uses a lot of sustained movement, but this company is ballet-trained and very quick in their movements."
In contrast, "Tracings" fits Burgess's usual mode of working. The work, which premiered last November at the Kennedy Center, draws from Burgess's mother's experience as a Korean immigrant in Hawaii working as an indentured servant on a pineapple plantation.
Burgess felt the work struck personal chords in Lima and Trujillo, partially because of the history of the Japanese Peruvian community, one of the largest Asian immigrant communities in South America.
"The Japanese Peruvians also have a unique agricultural background in terms of what they first did when they immigrated to Peru," Burgess said. "When we performed 'Tracings,' people here really were moved and understood the immigrant experience amazingly well."
Dancer Suzanne Bryant remembers, "In Trujillo, after the end there was a captivated silence before the applause."
The company saw other performances while traveling to get a sense of how its work compared with dance in Peru. Most dancers there, said Torres, "can't afford or don't have the exposure that we have to movement, so the dance community is very small and only focused on classical and neo-classical movement."
The cross-pollination of American and Peruvian dance is at the center of the embassy's work.
"I think dance people don't think of Peru as a mecca for modern dance, but thanks to some of the work we're doing, more people are starting to recognize this festival and become interested in touring here," Teal said. "As the U.S. Embassy, we're particularly interested in showing new [American] artists, particularly in the provinces."
The performance in Trujillo qualified as the company's provincial stop. Though Trujillo is the third largest city in Peru, the dancers saw a huge difference between it and Lima.
"Peru has many sharp contrasts in every aspect of life," says Valle-Riestra, who is originally from Peru. "The theaters where we danced are examples of this: Lima's Zum is a multifunctional auditorium with top music and lighting systems versus the beautiful, old, last-century Teatro Municipal in Trujillo, with severely rundown, poor conditions."
Walking through Trujillo during a break from rehearsals, Torres stuck his head into a building he suspected might be a dance studio. His hunch led to five Burgess company dancers taking class with Trujillo's municipal ballet company the next morning.
Dancer Shu-Chen Cuff puts the ballet class on her list of memorable moments.
"The professional ballet company there was so welcoming to us," she said. "Afterwards, the director asked us to come to her office, and she was telling us all about the situation there. They're so poor."
Burgess says he hopes the Peruvians learned about America through his dancers. Of the eight company members who traveled to Peru, four are of Asian heritage and two are originally from South America.
That diversity differs substantially from the picture of the United States that Burgess saw while watching television in Peru. "Who's Asian American on American TV? Is there anybody besides Lucy Liu?" he asked.
Combating misperceptions exported by American pop culture falls to the U.S. Embassy. "South American people can easily consume pop culture [from the United States], but there's not always access to American art forms," Teal said.
Or Americans. Facilitating personal exchanges, like the company's ballet class in Trujillo, builds connections.
Teal noted that Burgess's teaching abilities, which prompted the scheduling of many master classes with pre-professional and professional dancers, made him a good choice for the residency.
While marketing, logistics and much of the project's funding came from government sources, Burgess said all the artistic decisions remained completely within his purview. "I only had to run my choices by the director of the ballet company," he said.
Burgess and his dancers may have officially been cultural ambassadors, but they mainly identified as artists.
"You want to represent the U.S. well," said Maja White, the tour lighting designer and stage manager, "but once I get to the point where I'm working onstage and it's about getting a show up, you just keep your focus on getting the performance done. You take the time to say hello, then politely excuse yourself and work."