March is something of a homecoming for Dana Tai Soon Burgess. The Smithsonian Institute’s first choreographer-in-residence at the National Portrait Gallery chose Santa Fe to kick off a national tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of his dance company. He and his ensemble have been in residence at NDI New Mexico since March 14, teaching master classes and offering open rehearsals. The company performs at the Dance Barns on Saturday, March 18. Now based in Washington, D.C., Burgess has been called the “poet laureate of Washington dance.” He serves as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department, and his dance company has appeared in more than 30 countries.
Burgess’ mother, the Korean-American fiber artist Anna Kang Burgess, is a descendant of Korean plantation workers in Hawaii. His father, Joseph Burgess, now deceased, was a painter and art educator who learned Mandarin in the Navy and earned an MA in Chinese language and history from Yale. His parents met in art school and ran a gallery in Carmel, California, before moving to New Mexico in 1974. “I went to a Spanish-immersion elementary school, but my mother kept an Asian household,” Burgess said. “I attended Santa Fe High School, but was sent to a martial-arts dojo on Canyon Road every day after school.”
Having two artists as parents had a profound effect on Burgess, as did living in Santa Fe, where being a “hyphenated American” was not unusual. The confluence of Native, Hispanic, Anglo, and in his case, Asian, cultures is reflected in the subject matter of his dances. “I make works about new Americans and their journeys. I’m interested in people who live in the margins,” Burgess said.
“Having visual artists as parents taught me to consider the stage as a canvas, and the dancers as brush strokes. I grew up around the creative process. I understood early on what it meant to be an artist.” Still, when he enrolled at the University of New Mexico, his goal was to break the family paradigm. “I was going to be an accountant,” he said, but he hated the subject. He happened upon a dance class in session at Carlisle Gymnasium and was drawn to its physicality — the connection to his martial-arts training. He kept going back. “Eventually, the teacher came up to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you actually signed up for this class?’ ” Before long, he had received a scholarship to major in dance, and he had training in ballet, jazz, modern, and flamenco while at university.
In 1994, Burgess received an MFA in dance from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He then moved to New York and danced with several companies, but Manhattan never felt like home. “After growing up in Santa Fe, I felt New York City to be overwhelming. It just cultivated competition.” Washington, D.C., on the other hand, seemed to call him back. “I loved the beauty of the city. The museums, the city’s graciousness. This is the place for me, I decided. I started choreographing soon after and immediately received support from funders and the press.” He has been there ever since. He began teaching at George Washington University in 2000, where he currently serves as chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance.
“What informs my work is the goal of finding universality,” he said. “All the cultures I was exposed to growing up understood movement. It’s fundamental of all of humanity. People dance when they are elated, depressed, when they want to express their interior world — to express what they are feeling and thinking.”
Burgess’ many international tours have also offered inspiration. “I love the gestures used in Cambodian dance — the storytelling and the way they are not afraid to take a lot of time to let the story unfold. There is not the American shock of dance pyrotechnics. I believe in the beauty of silence, stillness, and gesture. I respect the poetic,” he said.
For his current residency at the Smithsonian, Burgess will create dances inspired by two upcoming exhibitions and perform them in the National Portrait Gallery: The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now (opening April 7) and One Life: Sylvia Plath (opening June 30). Leading up to the performances, the company will hold open rehearsals in the museum to provide visitors with a window into the choreographer’s creative process.
In Santa Fe, the company will perform three pieces, Leaving Pusan, Margin, and Confluence. These dances recall the works of Martha Graham, having a central female figure and a chorus moving in unison, slowly and deliberately. Leaving Pusan is based on the history of his mother’s family, who immigrated to Hawaii in 1903 as part of a wave of Koreans who were hired to work on pineapple plantations. “My mother’s family is a seventh-generation American success story,” he said. “The fact that my mother became an artist is an amazing outgrowth of the immigrant experience.” Burgess was featured in an exhibit honoring Korean-Americans at the Smithsonian in 2003.
“The conversation on diversity in America is changing,” Burgess said, in a Washington Post interview. “Literally, the face of America is changing. It used to be okay to make one dance about the Asian-American experience or the African-American experience, but now we have to go deeper. We’re craving a deeper conversation about those things. And it’s limitless.”
That was 2012. Burgess’ goal as a maker of dances may be universality, but right now, in the current climate, survival may be a more appropriate artistic objective. The selection of Burgess’ portrait by the Korean-American artist CYJO for the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery seems comforting to the choreographer. The image was first displayed in a 2011 exhibit called Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits. “There is a vetting process at the Portrait Gallery,” Burgess said. “Art historians and curators at the Smithsonian make decisions. Once your portrait is there, they take care of you. Your image is there forever.” ◀