writers on dancing


Home, After Close Inspection, Is Where the Art Is

Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Company
November 5, 2004
Lincoln Theatre4
Washington, D.C.

by Christopher Correa
copyright © 2004 by Christopher Correa

Some performers appear to grow right before our eyes. Dana Tai Soon Burgess, the dancer and choreographer, is broad shouldered and of sturdy build, but not a large man. Put him center stage and give him a spotlight though, and something startling happens: his frame expands, his shadow hangs and weighs on the wall behind him, and suddenly he’s the tallest man in the room. It’s not that he’s larger than life; Mr. Burgess makes living large seem like a state of mind.

As an interpreter, he executed the stiff, revolving choreography in Michio Ito’s 1916 work, “Pizzicattie,” with pithy dexterousness. Dancing to percolated music by Leo Delibes, his torso heaved and waned, while his arms revolved in arcs and jags. Suggesting a perpetual motion machine, Mr. Burgess’s concentric gesticulations began the evening with a disarmingly buoyant momentum. But as a choreographer, he took the possibilities of modern dance into directions that came tantalizingly close to greatness.

“Tracings,” evoked the dreamy eloquence of major works by the director Julie Taymor and the choreographer Garth Fagan in their sparest, truest form. With their staging of the immensely popular Broadway showpiece “The Lion King,” they are responsible for some of the most transfixing imagery in the American musical theatre. When the special effects were halted, the theatrical pyrotechnics snuffed and the gooey sentimentality sapped, what remained of that production was surprisingly subtle and poignant “Tracings,” at its most organized moments, had similar results. The clarity and beauty, at times, were enough to wipe out an audience.

The story of Mr. Burgess’s familial emigration from Korea to Hawai’i, “Tracings” is essentially a memory play without words. Told through overlapping narratives over the period of three generations, the work is clearly personal to the choreographer. Too personal, one could argue, as what was presented on stage occasionally seemed as impenetrable as a poet’s private journal. This made it difficult to make perfect sense of the important details of his family’s multilayered crucible.

An elderly woman (Mr. Burgess’s mother, Anna Kang Burgess) sat downstage and plaintively stared off, perhaps into the recesses of her memory. Filmed footage of a steam ship floating across the Pacific materialized against the back wall, initiating her family’s journey. She vanished and a young girl, (portraying her own mother) dressed in a cream colored robe, packed her suitcase, surrounded by mourning relatives. They circled her, raising their arms out in quick, slinky spans, flicking their wrists up, while she applied a Noh-styled mask, signifying her inner self—both cultural and emotional—that she would take with her. She cradled the mask, while the clan loped and churned into the wings.

That suitcase became a veritable bag of tricks; it contained a silky fabric that she twisted into a mock bridal garment (the gorgeous white costumes were by Judy Hansen), then spilled across the stage and stood upon, spinning it around her feet. The implication was of a woman undone by, and tangled in, history. Her movements shifted from girlish to stoical, and the ensemble mirrored her sensibilities, seesawing forward and backward like a flock of cranes walking in quiet unison. Later, pale pineapples were integrated within the dancing, bringing into focus Ms. Burgess’s first job as an émigré, a plantation worker for Del Monte.

Pictures of family and the new exotic land that would become home were projected intermittently, which helped us connect with the situations and the distinction between principal characters. Notably, Jennifer Ferguson and Connie Fink invested their parts with a deep actorly acumen. Also captivating were Leonardo Giron Torres and Tati Valle-Riestra, who imbued wellsprings of depth to their solos. Wonders all.

Most touching, however, was Ms. Burgess who spoke more with simple pantomime than seemed possible. A striking woman whose expressive face turned the audience’s emotions with her own on a dime, she connected herself with her son’s work, so that we would be able to connect with her real life story. Only rarely since Stephen Sondheim’s song “Someone in a Tree—which distilled the fragile bond between East and West into a six minute tour de force—have these feelings come across so tenderly.

Tonally, Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Hours,” and the wonderful British director Stephen Daldry’s subsequently graceful film adaptation are comparable works. And both suffered the same distraction that Mr. Burgess’s dance does: all are, fundamentally, thoughtful meditations that skip around through time while inhabiting the same sphere of conscious. This is not a flaw, but it often made for a perplexing, tortuous experience. “Tracings” held a plastic relationship with the flow of time and place, which sometimes left a distant, alienating sensation for the audience to cope with. Without the superimposed album of family and passages, for example, one could quickly find himself lost at sea.

Mr. Burgess knew how to fill the space, aurally and visually, thanks in no small part to the contributions of his gifted design team, most notably the indispensable lighting designer Jennifer Tipton.

“Tracings” presented a fluid generational chain whose links are iron-clad but all embracing. As a depiction of cross-cultural transition and assimilation, it didn’t quite take shape. About ten minutes too long, it got runny around the edges from time to time. But as a tribute to a woman, a country, and a family line. Mr. Burgess’s piece was a tone poem steeped in a murky past, but incandescent with the glimmer of hope.

Photos by Mary Noble Ours.

Volume 2, No. 42
November 8, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Christopher Correa


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last updated on October 25, 2004