“Okay, let’s take it from the creepy rub,” Dana Tai Soon Burgess says to the two dancers in front of him.
Right. So the man, Ian Ceccarelli, walks slowly around his partner, Sarah Halzack, as if he’s sizing her up for dinner, then grabs her and paws at her. Halzack withdraws a little, but by the look on her face there’s a hint of interest. They’re rehearsing a dance about the tormented poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, who killed herself in 1963 at age 30. Complicated reactions run through it.
Burgess, one of Washington’s most distinguished choreographers, is in the midst of creating this work in response to the exhibition “One Life: Sylvia Plath” at the National Portrait Gallery. Last year, the gallery named Burgess, director of Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, as its first choreographer in residence. It’s a rare distinction in the museum world and a first for any of the Smithsonian museums.
“He’s a treasure. We’re very proud of ourselves,” says National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet, adding that the corporeal verve of dancers is a perfect remedy for the typically static environment of museums.
“All these artificial boundaries between art and poetry and performance need to come down,” Sajet says. “Our goal is to bring a sense of emotion about who we are as humans into the Portrait Gallery.”
It’s not unusual for museums to host or even commission dance or performance-art productions. There are innumerable examples. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, to name just one, has a curatorial department for performing arts and a long history of commissioning works by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and other troupes.
What’s less common is for a museum to pair up with a choreographer long-term to develop dances specifically inspired by its exhibitions. Sajet says she views Burgess “almost like he’s an extension of the staff.” He learns about shows in advance and is able to consult with their curators and designers.
But if resident choreographers are unusual — for now — more museums may be seeing the value of dance as another way to think about what’s on display. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has selected its first choreographer as artist in residence for the 2017-2018 season: Andrea Miller, director and choreographer of Gallim Dance. (The Met is having a dance moment; Monica Bill Barnes & Company is performing “The Museum Workout” there, an early-morning romp through the building.)
Dance that is prompted by the artworks “enlivens the exhibition itself,” Burgess says. “There’s this other interpretation, another piece of creativity that explores it further. So the audience sees there’s lots of ways to communicate their responses.”
Burgess’s Plath-inspired work, titled “I Am Vertical,” after one of her poems, is his sixth dance created for the Portrait Gallery. He began in 2013, with an exhibition on dance in the United States. Curator Amy Henderson wanted live dance along with the posters and film clips on display. Reaching out to Burgess was natural; his portrait had been included in the dance exhibit.
His gift is to spotlight aspects of the art a visitor might overlook, Sajet says. A performance inspired by the gallery’s show of Civil War photographs, she says, “had women in these black hoop skirts, and it occurred to me, can you imagine moving around in those giant dresses? To me, it makes it all seem a little more real.”
Burgess holds his final rehearsals in the gallery, to let the public see the process and ask questions. “It demystifies how the dance is made,” he says.
“One Life” is the first exhibition on Plath in an art and history museum, according to the gallery. It includes her drawings and self-portraits as well as letters, journals and other artifacts of her writing. What these objects say about the inner terrain of the author of “The Bell Jar” and “Ariel” is what attracts Burgess. In his rehearsal, he urges his dancers to get uncomfortably close to one another, to find “those weird psychological moments.”
He plays a recording of Plath describing the party in the 1950s at which she met fellow poet Ted Hughes, with whom she would share a disastrous marriage. As she talks about her attraction to Hughes, and archly notes that their first date was on a Friday the 13th, two dancers prowl around each other, embodying the couple in a predatory tango that ends with them tumbling about on the floor.
Burgess asks them for “a little more contact.” The dancers give it a try, clinging as they roll, but one starts giggling. Soon they’ve both busted up laughing and snorting, and everyone else starts giggling, even Burgess, because they all need a break from Plath. Emotional intensity is de rigeur in the work Burgess creates from what he sees at the museum, with its compressed, controlled treatments of a theme.
The dancers have some time ahead for polishing. “I Am Vertical” will be performed Dec. 7 and 10 in the National Portrait Gallery’s Kogod Courtyard.
“It takes a special choreographer to take what is on the walls at the gallery and make it come alive,” Sajet says. “Dana has helped us put a different face on what a museum can be, and particularly what a portrait gallery can be.”
I Am Vertical Dec. 7 at 6:30 p.m. and Dec. 10 at 2 and 4 p.m. at the National Portrait Gallery. dtsbdc.org. Free.
One Life: Sylvia Plath Through May 20 at the National Portrait Gallery. 202-633-1000. npg.si.edu. Free.