As the fall arts season sweeps in, it’s good to be reminded of our basic, universal need for connection: Political alliances, displacements, so much turmoil large and small spirals out from a quest for acceptance and belonging.
It’s a common theme in art, but what made the search for connection feel fresh and sharp in the works by Dana Tai Soon Burgess performed this weekend at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater was the slipperiness. An artist’s inspiration, everyday encounters, a longing for spiritual union on Earth and in the heavens all were complicated but emotionally rich experiences, revealing Burgess’s gift for summoning feeling from an idiosyncratic language of shapes and stillness.
This is not to say that the works were static. The program’s title, “Fluency in Four,” reflects an elegant ease of movement in the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, with the dancers slipping smoothly from human origami — with the spine scooped and the hips extended — to light, skimming flight. But it’s the quiet moments when the dancers seemed transfixed that stay with me, especially in the premiere of “We choose to go to the moon.”
This is a poetic view of President John F. Kennedy’s launch of the Apollo program, entwined with scientists’ words about how mind-blowing space is. Space is where time races and stops, where death is so big you can see it across the universe but where life is also renewable. A star’s demise a billion years ago lives on as a phenomenon we can witness tonight. And from that explosion, which a physicist patiently describes as a “catastrophe” in a voice-over, new stars — new life — are born.
Meanwhile, a filmic backdrop shows us stars and planets in living, three-dimensional detail, and the dancers play with glowing orbs that bounce through the night sky. (Joao Beira and Quince Imaging created the stunning video projections.) The Earth looms huge and blue then gradually recedes. And this is the moment that caught my heart: when the other dancers whirl away from Kelly Moss Southall, the Kennedy figure, leaving him alone to slowly, longingly wave goodbye in the darkness to a vanishing planet. If the echoes of assassination and assorted disappearing dreams (of Camelot, of the space program, of a more idealistic time) didn’t get you, the view of this individual watching all of his connections slip away surely did.
This piece left you with the intricate satisfaction of a work of art. As Burgess described in an earlier interview, he created it while mourning the loss of his father. He found solace in his art and discovered that art and science are easy companions in the space-exploration field. You can feel an intensely personal connection here, especially in the moments of restraint, when isolation is evoked in emptiness. Occasionally, the lighting effects felt overdone; simplicity worked best.
There was poignant beauty in the recordings by such 1960s voices as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Perry Como. With subtle colors and understated details, Judy Hansen’s classy, vintage-inspired cocktail dresses and slim suits harked back to a time when people dressed better and when what they wore was made better. (Her costumes throughout the evening exquisitely balanced danceability with high style, making you wish other designers, for men as well as women, built in such freedom. Even if you couldn’t kick up a leg as these dancers could, wouldn’t it be nice to know your skirt wouldn’t fight you?) With such strong decorative elements and Burgess’s piercing distillation of movement, this piece is a great step forward for the company.
The whole program presented the company on a high plane; there wasn’t a weak work among the four. “Picasso Dancers,” inspired by a few of the painter’s works, featured the beguilingly cool allure of Sarah Halzack (a Washington Post reporter), among other characters who wouldn’t be boxed in. “Mandala” had an original percussive musical score by Jon Jang that seemed to govern your heartbeats as it pulled you in to the spiritual yearning of its four dancers. Here, the struggle for connection was quite simply a rush.