An Interview With Choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess by Rick Westerkamp

Dana Tai Soon Burgess. Photo by Mary Noble Ours.

In preparation for his show on September 21st, 22 and 23 at 8 PM at The Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, I interviewed Dana Tai Soon Burgess, the director of DC modern dance company Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. and chair of The Department of Theatre and Dance at The George Washington University.

This is an exciting time for Dana and his company, as they are celebrating their 20th anniversary. For 20 years, Burgess has created works that speak universally to the experiences of new Americans and Asian Americans through modern dance. He is the recipient of the Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence in an Artistic Discipline, 2 Fulbrights and 8 Metro DC Dance Awards. His works have been presented extensively nationally and internationally. Dana is an inspired and passionate person and artist, and I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Rick: Dana, your childhood/adolescence in New Mexico was artistically and culturally rich. What were the effects of this on your journey as an artist, and do you still feel that influence in your artistic life today? Where did you obtain your dance training?

Dana: My experiences in Santa Fe, NM have the largest influence on my work and my life. They were formative years of being immersed in a unique arts community. My parents are visual artists and I was constantly surrounded by the creative process and artists from varying cultures and viewpoints. I was a competitive martial artist as a child and teenage. I started taking classes in a small studio in Santa Fe and when I went to the University of NM I received a scholarship in the arts. My serious training occurred in Albuquerque with my teachers at UNM and with Tim Wengerd the former soloist of the Graham company. I danced for his company professionally while in college.

Your dances are often very personal, whether to your Asian American heritage or something you, or someone close to you, have experienced. What is it like when you have compiled your research, be it notes you’ve taken or memories you’ve collected, and you begin working in the rehearsal space?

I love to talk to people and hear their stories. I also love to read and put things in either a historic or a psychological context. I am a big fan of Carl Jung and his dream interpretations. So I collect information and go to the studio.  With what is on my mind, I start with movement itself. If I can lose myself in the work, then my subconscious does the rest.

Your movement vocabulary is very nuanced and specific. What was it like to compile this vocabulary? Did you take movement that you had an affinity for, either performing or watching others perform?

I think it includes martial arts, ballet, modern dance and a love for gesture. I am interested in how a gesture or a change in posture can make a large statement.  We all recognize a person who is depressed or ecstatic through their movements.  I have studied emotional posturing for years and incorporate those concepts.

Your movement vocabulary also has amazing “chameleon” qualities, in that it can take on the emotional landscape of any of your works. Does this happen organically? Is it something that has become easier as you have created more works, or did you find this characteristic early on in your career?

I have a tedious process of going through each dance phrase and dissecting it.  I coach for intension and quality. It is this time consuming process that defines my work.  It hasn’t become easier over the years but I know what I am in for now!

Your company of dancers always performs in such a cohesive rhythm with each other, and look like a family of dancers onstage. When you are looking to cast a new dancer, are you looking at them as a dancer as much as you are looking at them as a person? And what is the process of preparing a dancer to become a cohesive member of your group of dancers?

I actually look at the dancers as characters and archetypes.  The key is consistent company class and dancer retention. The longer we work together the more in tuned the company is to each other.

Your choreographic works are artistic experiences, due to the technical aspects you marry with your choreography. Have you always been interested in collaborating with artists in other media? Do you think that your inclusion of other art forms has helped you reach a broader audience?

Since my parents are visual artists I have always included visual elements because I see the stage as a moving canvass. The field has changed a lot in 20 years and so video has become another element.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Miyako Nitadori. Photo by Mary Noble Ours.

You have been a Cultural Envoy for the US State Department for many years now, traveling to Egypt, Jordan, Mongolia, and Peru. What, if anything, has surprised you about international audiences? What has surprised you about international dance students?

Dancers all over the world are a community that works together. Regardless of cultural barriers such as language differences, people all understand shared movements of the body. It is our fundamental, universal language. What I have always respected about going abroad and working with other communities is how much people give up in their daily lives to be dancers. It is always humbling and inspiring to meet artists.

In this, your 20th Anniversary Season of Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company, you must be reflecting on the growth and strength of your company. How has the landscape of Washington, D.C.’s dance scene changed as your company has grown? What are your hopes for the future of the DC dance scene?

In a way the dance scene has become more polarized between the more established companies that built infrastructure before our American economic problems. It has been a Darwinian landscape in the last few years with many companies dismantling. We are very lucky to have had years of infrastructure building which makes our organization sustainable right now. I think the community now has a few established companies and many, new smaller companies trying to figure out how to afford to experiment and present their work  Theatres and studios have largely been priced out due to the capital campaigns of a few years ago.  I think the future of dance in DC will be in alternative spaces and this intrinsically changes the type of work a young artist will create.

Your company is gearing up for your 20th Anniversary Fall Performance, September 21-23 at 8pm in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre. What do you hope audiences take away from this performance and what has it been like putting the performance together?

I hope the audiences come away from the show in a contemplative state. I want each work to make the audience think about their own stories and their own lives while enjoying the power and beauty of dance. It is always wonderful to reset repertoire and think about where I was when I created the work originally and at the same time be working on a new dance. So audiences will see work from 1999 to today

What is your greatest source of inspiration at the moment?

It is still the interior world and how images from this place can capture and tell stories about the human condition.

What’s next for you after the Marvin Theatre performance?

I am very excited to say we have a full touring season, our youth program is gearing up again and then I will be working as a resident artist for a large visual arts exhibition through 2013-14  We plan two years in advance now, so I am listening to people, reading and collecting stories already.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. performs on September 21, 22 and 23, 2012 at 8 PM at Marvin Betts Theatre – 800 21st Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.



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