It was written in the stars. Or at least suggested by them, the night Dana Tai Soon Burgess sat outside his parents’ home near Santa Fe, N.M., looking up at a Milky Way that seemed close enough to touch.
Burgess’s father was gravely ill with cancer. The tantalizing nearness of space added a new layer to his feelings of loss. How transcendent and brave it was to dream of exploring that vastness, as his father’s generation did in the Kennedy era. Was the romance of space disappearing with his dad?
And so the dance Burgess had been working on in between trips home took a more poignant, nostalgic turn. The result, “We Choose to Go to the Moon,” will have its world premiere Sept. 19 and 20 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, performed by Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, on a program with three repertory works. After these performances, Burgess expects “We Choose to Go to the Moon” to be performed at NASA sites across the country.
Its ambitious intertwining of art, science and national aspirations seems like a fitting launch of the fall dance season — art takes on the world, and beyond.
“I hadn’t thought about it in terms of that generation, and the fragility of life, and how passionate and creative those people were,” Burgess said, describing his new work over lunch at Primi Piatti, near George Washington University, where he chairs the department of theater and dance.
His focus became “this presidential dream and all the people who surrounded it.” The title is drawn from President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University in Houston, in which he made the case for the Apollo program that landed Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface seven years later.
Kennedy framed the quest as politically imperative — beating the Soviets in the space race — but also as an almost spiritual matter of vulnerability and courage. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” Kennedy said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . .”
To his surprise, Burgess heard similar sort-of-spiritual echoes from the astronauts and NASA specialists he interviewed for his piece. Some of them will be heard in voice-overs during the work, in addition to songs from the era recorded by Perry Como and Otis Redding.
One of the astronauts was Bruce McCandless, who joined NASA in 1966. In 1984, he ventured out of the shuttle Challenger to make the first untethered free flight, with a jet pack. He spoke with Burgess about the feeling of vulnerability he experienced when he looked homeward from space and discovered he could blot out the Earth with his thumb.
Chryssa Kouveliotou is a GWU professor who recently retired as a senior technologist in high-energy astrophysics at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. A specialist in gamma rays, she spoke to Burgess about being an “archaeologist of space.”
Star explosions that scientists are observing now happened thousands to billions of years ago, Kouveliotou said, elaborating in a recent phone interview. “It’s a forensic science.”
But if we no longer have national aspirations for the space program in the same way as we did in the Kennedy era, the questions about space are more relevant than ever, she added.
“The same question is always there: Are we alone?” Kouveliotou said. “It’s the question everybody’s asking at a certain point in their life. It hits you. How did we come here? How did the universe form? All these questions are very current, because we don’t know the answers. Science is an art in a way, right? At least for me.”
Burgess’s father died during the making of “We Choose to Go to the Moon,” and that prompted another rethinking of space, emptiness and loss, and how we connect to them.
“People are energy, and then there’s a void,” he said. He sifted what he calls “life cycle” messages throughout the work, ideas about death bringing something new into existence, whether a star, a work of art or a dream.
“I think America is a little lost right now, in terms of the dream,” Burgess said. “I think the question is, what is the next solidifying journey that can bring us together?”
Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company performs “Fluency in Four,” a program of four works including “We Choose to Go to the Moon,” at 7 p.m. Sept. 19 and 20, at the Kennedy Center. Tickets: $28 - $45. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.