Dancing Across The Divide:
Dana Tai Soon Burgess crosses cultures through the universal language of movement
By Keijo Ohnuma
The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company began its 25th anniversary tour in New Mexico on March 21 with three recent works. Ticket proceeds went to fund dance education in New Mexico.
Although he is not what one immediately pictures as New Mexican—Asian-American and a prominent East Coast dance choreographer who performs internationally—Dana Tai Soon Burgess is a native son who has absorbed the deepest influences from the Land of Enchantment.
Raised in Santa Fe by an artist couple who had come West seeking a creative environment, Burgess remembers his childhood as steeped in diversity—not so much being different himself, as being surrounded by the richness of difference.
In Santa Fe in the 1970s and 1980s, "there was a small Asian community, and all the kids went to school together," he recalls. "Most of us went to the same martial arts dojo, in the same building as Project Tibet on Canyon Road. I went to bilingual schools. My best friend growing up was Navajo, so there was moving through these diverse communities every day."
It's not a stretch to see those influences at work in the dances he creates for his Washington, D.C.-based multicultural troupe, now in its 24th season. Burgess, 48, has performed at the Kennedy Center, United Nations headquarters and Lincoln Center. He has been tapped by the U.S. State Department as a cultural ambassador, performing in dozens of countries, as well as at the White House at the invitation of President Barack Obama. His choreography has been recognized with two senior Fulbright scholarships, seven Metro D.C. Dance Awards and the Mayor's Arts Award for Excellence.
Even today, as a "national dance treasure," as one writer calls him, Burgess traces his artistic development to the training he received at the UNM Department of Theatre & Dance and continues to nurture relationships with UNM faculty and students a quarter century after graduating.
Burgess remains close to his undergraduate professors, emeritae Judith Chazin-Bennahum and Jennifer Predock-Linell. He brought the current department chair, Vladimir Conde Reche, to Washington to choreograph a dance for his own students at George Washington University, where he chairs the Department of Theatre & Dance.
And he donated a dance to Conde Reche's students to perform here, strengthening the connection between the two departments. With his husband, playwright James Freeman, Burgess established a dance fund at UNM last year that the department can use to bring guest artists to the school.
"I have seen students connecting with us and staying involved, but not as much as Dana," says Conde Reche, who will host Burgess when he returns to New Mexico for a benefit performance in March. "He's a person who's really looking into how he can give back to UNM. He's interested in supporting the students, the faculty. He's so grateful for how the faculty in the dance program supported him."
Raised in a family of visual artists, Burgess initially chose to major in accounting as an act of rebellion. "Soon, I realized I could never do that all my life," he laughs. Walking by a gym one day, he became captivated by the dancers practicing. It reminded him of his many years competing in martial arts.
"He was a very shy, skinny young man coming into our studios, hanging out when we were still in the gym," recalls Chazin-Bennahum. "He really loved all kinds of movement, every kind of dance, and he had a completely open mind about the art form and imagery. It was such a pleasure to teach him, because he has knowledge, excitement, and an inquiring mind."
Predock-Linnell recalls Burgess as standing out immediately for his "really fascinating and unusual ideas" and his talent for choreography and dance. "He was a quiet student, but very focused and clear about how he wanted to choreograph—and this is where he ended up."
After graduating from the College of Fine Arts in 1990, Burgess moved to the nation's capital to dance professionally. He attended George Washington University, where he received his Master of Fine Arts in 1994, and at the same time founded Moving Forward: Contemporary Asian American Dance Company (since renamed Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company). "I just had this feeling that I really wanted to tell the unique stories that I was interested in, and that would resonate with larger audiences," he says.
Descended on his mother's side from the first wave of Hawaii plantation workers from Korea, Burgess initially focused on the Asian-American experience. His father was an Asian history scholar who spoke Mandarin, and he was steeped in Asian-American art at home, with family friends such as sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
He began choreographing dances about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Korean adoptee experience and "hyphenated" identity, including a collaboration with the estate of pioneering Korean-American video artist Nam June Paik.
Then Burgess started thinking about "what is universal to new Americans and so-called marginalized communities." His newest work, premiered in October, is called "Margin." It addresses broader issues of race, gender and class. It is the first in a series of works that he will create as the first choreographer-in-residence at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to accompany temporary exhibitions at the museum.
If it seems strange for a portrait museum to collaborate with a choreographer in this way, it serves as a testament to Burgess' ease with navigating across borders, not only between cultures but also across artistic media.
"I'm a big proponent of the idea that all fields utilize creativity," he says, "even science. The same steps go into it. You have this concept, take a leap of faith, experiment and come to a new discovery." He often says he was drawn to dance because it is "a unifying language that we all understand." Given his family background, it seemed natural to use movement as a bridge to appreciating visual art.
The National Portrait Gallery had contacted Burgess in 2013 to help with its first big show on American dance, "Dancing the Dream." The museum had featured him in a 2012 exhibit about prominent Korean Americans, and wanted to include that portrait in the dance show.
Burgess proposed incorporating dance by actually choreographing with his troupe on the floor of the exhibition as people walked through, an experiment that proved so successful in engaging audiences that his current residency is set for multiple events at the museum over the next three years.
The melding of artistic media "resonated with me from childhood," Burgess says. "Coming from a family of visual artists, seeing the creative process every day, I think of dance steps like brush strokes." He begins his creative process from personal experience, which "I spin to make more universal." What fascinates him is "these entry points for looking at our society through personal story, or the universality of specific stories, so people can become more empathetic to varying points of view." Empathy, or emotional engagement, is what the arts can contribute to healing rifts both personal and social, Burgess says.
Chazin-Bennahum sees in her former student's approach the influence of the special environment he grew up in, not only at home but also in the blended cultures of New Mexico, which fuel "this desire to connect with the underpinnings of life, which are really based in ritual and culture."
She often took her students to see Native American dances, and encourage an appreciation of folklorico, flamenco, country line dancing equal to ballet, jazz and modern dance. "All these different kinds of love of movement, I think really had an effect on him," she says.
Burgess likewise regards his undergraduate experiences as "planting deep seeds of wisdom" that have continued to grow with him as an artist. "I'll have a funny or wonderful memory from something that happened in class, or that a professor said, that resonates with what I'm doing now," he says. "You're instilling in them all these ideas and concepts, and then it's how they water them and give them sun, and also prune them—that's what creates success."
According to his former teachers, Burgess himself excels as a teacher, which they also connect to the time he spent at UNM. "I've seen how his students feel about him—how appreciative they are of what he does for them," says Conde Reche. "So when I say he is very appreciative of what he received here, this is how he is showing that."
Besides chairing the dance department at George Washington, Burgess runs dance programs through his company at two area schools, and operates an Asian American youth outreach program that mentors high school students in life skills as well as in the arts.
"I think that the arts now, more than ever, are important for expressing what actual American ideals are in the new millennium," he says. And for that, "we have to nurture new younger artists constantly."
Looking back at himself as that skinny accounting student, Burgess marvels at how his teachers took the "extra step" of instilling not only the fundamental skills he needed to dance professionally, but also to survive as an artist.
"Because he was given freedom to explore his ideas, I think that's one of the things that he passes on in his teaching—the freedom to succeed and fail," Predock-Linnell says. "He has a great deal of respect for his students' individuality."
For Burgess, it all comes back to empathy. "Working with young people, I know that you have to take that extra step," he says. "Because growing up is hard. And growing up as an artist is even harder."