Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company performs in the National Portrait Gallery's Kogod courtyard. Photo by Jeff Malet.
Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company performs in the National Portrait Gallery’s Kogod courtyard. Photo by Jeff Malet.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has chosen Washington choreographer and company director Dana Tai Soon Burgess as its first choreographer-in-residence.

Over the next three years, Burgess, 48, will create new works inspired by museum exhibitions and will participate in public discussions about dance and art. Also, the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company will premiere the new dances in the museum’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard.

Burgess’s first work will draw on issues of American diversity arising from The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, the museum’s triennial portrait contest featuring artists from across the country. Their works are on view through Jan. 8, 2017. The dance will be performed this fall.

Burgess has worked with the National Portrait Gallery previously, creating works inspired by its “Dark Fields of the Republic” exhibit of Civil War photographs and the “Dancing the Dream” exhibit on dance in American entertainment and movies. In those earlier collaborations, Burgess “connected with our audiences in a new way,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, in a statement. “People were captivated by his dance company’s interpretations of our exhibitions. …Dana’s work brings to life stories and emotions and enriches the life of the museum.”

[Read about the dance inspired by the “Dancing the Dream" exhibit, and other Burgess works.]

Burgess says he is eager to enliven the museum space with movement, now that he and his dancers have won the trust of museum officials “that we wouldn’t fall into the artwork or knock a painting off the wall or something,” he said Monday in an interview, with a laugh. “Dancers have really wonderful proprioception–they know exactly where they are in space. But unless you see them in action, and see how they can balance and turn on a dime, I’m sure you might be scared.”

“Audiences tend to think of going to a museum as looking at things that are static,” Burgess continued. “But there are a number of ways of interpreting artwork. …Another way is to look at at a contemporary piece of choreography that’s based on the work.”

He says he plans to choreograph a piece based on the “One Life: Sylvia Plath” exhibit opening in summer 2017.

Raised in New Mexico by artist parents, Burgess says the residency feels like a homecoming. “Growing up in a house full of visual artists,” he said, “I’m happy to be back in a place that feels so comfortable.”


Choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess. Photo by Mary Noble Ours.