Twenty years after his dance company’s debut at George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, Dana Tai Soon Burgess on Friday was exactly where he started — working himself into a nervous sweat backstage at the same theater.
You could say there’s a charming circularity in that. And it set up a nice point of contrast. Considering the poetry of the works on the program, the deeply musical performances and the superb quality of the lighting design, costuming and decor, one could only marvel at how far Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company has progressed artistically since its 1992 founding.
And yet: This artist — not only a Washington prize, but a national dance treasure — deserves better. Much better. The reason Burgess was such a wreck backstage was that something had gone wrong with the sound during the performance of his solo “Dariush.” While dancer Katia Chupashko Norri was onstage furling and unfurling her arms like silk, twisting herself through complicated and fascinating visual rhythms, the CD of Sheila Chandra’s velvet chanting was noisily stuttering and skipping, as if a DJ were in the sound booth scratching vinyl.
Still, Norri had things well under control. Her inner musicality as she whipped through the steps was unaffected, and her focused, quicksilver performance was one of the bravest I’ve seen.
I mention the sound fiasco not because it was the most remarkable part of the program — it wasn’t — but to underscore the point that an artist of Burgess’s high caliber and consistent excellence ought to be performing on the grandest stages rather than in a small, tucked-away corner, whatever its appeal of coziness and nostalgia.
From his very beginnings here, landing in 1989 from his New Mexico home, Burgess stood out as a dancer, with an unforgettable way of moving. He was at once calm and unrestrained, as if wind, fire and water fluctuated inside. When I first saw his company in 1993, its promise as a cultural and artistic force was clear. Burgess, a Korean American, set out on the bold course of telling Asian American stories in dance — in its first years, he called his group “Moving Forward,” with all the underlying meaning of revelation and progress against stereotypes that the phrase implies. And he has done exactly that. His works have grown sharper and cleaner year by year, and his audience — by no means limited to the Asian community — also has grown.
Back in 1995, he told me in an interview: “What I’m trying to do right now is codify and explore a movement lexicon which is really my own.” He’s achieved that, too. His dancers move with an arresting mix of the innate smoothness and control that Burgess possessed as a dancer (he retired from the stage a few years ago), the crisp precision of the martial-arts training of his youth and modern-dance influences. Chief among these is the subtle aesthetic of Japanese choreographer Michio Ito. (Burgess revived a handful of Ito works in an illuminating 1996 program.)
Burgess’s unwavering thematic focus, deep investigation, unique vocabulary, choreographic craftsmanship, plus the equally lofty contributions from the designers with whom he collaborates: These all add up to a level of accomplishment few dance artists can match. And each of these elements was present in the weekend’s 20th-anniversary performances, which included the ensemble works “Becoming American,” drawing on Norri’s experience of being adopted from Korea, and “Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love,” springing from Burgess’s childhood fascination with the Hollywood detective. There was also a premiere, “Caverns.”
Each piece had its wonders, but the smallest, most condensed works — two solos and “Caverns,” a trio — hit hardest. “Khaybet,” a portrait of a veiled woman looking back on her life as she faces death, is as sharp, dramatic and exceptional as a diamond, especially as performed by Connie Lin Fink, a dancer of understated and powerful grace. Burgess was inspired by the women shrouded in black whom he saw in his travels through Pakistan and Afghanistan; contemplating their dark mysteries, he envisioned a moment when the soul is illuminated and freed.
Fink dipped and crouched like a flickering flame. In a sudden, breathtaking moment her arms lifted like wings as she spun. The exhilarating rush of feeling unleashed in a body unburdened was perfectly matched by Philip Glass’s quickening pulse, resident costume designer Judy Hansen’s airy shroud and lighting designer Carl Gudenius’s piercing lantern glow. Burgess dedicated the weekend’s performances of this work to the memory of Alan Kriegsman, the former Washington Post dance critic who died last month; he had been an early and enthusiastic Burgess supporter.
“Khaybet” has always been one of my favorite Burgess works, but “Caverns” marks a new high point. Here, as throughout the program, Gudenius’s lighting was key: The illumination of Fink’s face as she looked at some distant point at the start, and the shadows falling on the rest of the stage, suggested we were in a murky metaphysical realm between tenderness and menace. It soon becomes clear that the two dancers behind her — Norri and Felipe Oyarzun — are tracing an episode in Fink’s memory, a love affair turned violent, and which Fink is reliving in brief, fractured visions.
Her torment is quiet, restless, but no less palpable as it is told in the sparest of gestures. Oyarzun’s suggestion of a punch sends Norri arcing backward and Fink’s body arches too, though she is watching from a distance.
Arvo Part’s echoing, introspective “Fur Alina” is more silence than sound, but this tale of dependencies and a turning point felt full of music. That came from the singing physical rhythms and the emotional connections of one character to another across that darkened space that rang familiar notes of feeling in the viewer, as distinctly as if they were bells.
We don’t know one another, not really. We don’t know what agonies lurk inside even our closest companions. Burgess is acutely aware of this, and has made it his life’s work to bring some of those truths into the open, with sensitivity and empathy. His art is treasure unburied. It needs to be shared with the world.