writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Tracing a New Version of The American Dream

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co.
Terrace Theater
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
November 6, 2003

By Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright © 2003 by Alexandra Tomalonis

Say "American immigrants" and the picture that's ingrained in our collective brain is one of people crowded together on the deck of a ship, or standing, numbed and exhausted, in Ellis Island's endless lines. That's the long shot. The close up is a black and white photo, perhaps from a history text, perhaps from our own family album. When we see their faces, we see worry, expectation, pride and (perhaps because we've been told it's there) hope. The overwhelming color is black.  Black dresses, black hair, black caps, black suits, black suitcases. A sea of darkness, befitting people who had fled political oppression, pogroms, famine or grinding poverty to find a new life in the New World. The stories that go with those photos are often ones of cruelty and terror. Hope, yes, but anger too at what had caused the journey.

These individual stories have been told so many times that they have become one story, Our Story. But there are other stories, and as more and more new immigrants have time to settle in and begin to weave their own tapestries, we'll begin to hear them. Dana Tai Soon Burgess's Tracings, which received its premiere Thursday night, adds different colors to the collective photograph—white and cream—for his dance is light and  fluid, full of hope and beauty.

Tracings is a co-production of Burgess's company, Moving Forward, the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, which is celebrating 100 years of Korean immigration this year. In 1903, the first wave of immigrants from Korea, fleeing the advancing Japanese army, came to Hawaii.  Burgess's great-grandparents were among this group. They fled a war to find a life of hard labor in Hawaii's pineapple plantations. As a child, Burgess noticed scars on his mother's hands, and learned that these scars came from picking pineapples as a teenager. Anna Kang Burgess left those fields and became an artist, obtaining an MFA in writing and fiber arts; she appeared as a guest artist in Tracings. The Kang Burgess family's story wends its way through Hawaii's pineapple fields rather than Manhattan's sweat shops, but it still arrived at what was the American Dream: that your chlidren's life would be better than yours.

Despite the family history, there's no anger or bitterness in Tracings. Instead, there's an air of peace and serenity, a sense that the generations are connected and that there is a constant interchange of ideas, traditions,and memories among them. Dancers form a circle, or are part of a group, then pull away and are pulled back, as if by tides. The push and pull are constant, insistent, and without visible rebellion. Like his mother's girlhood, the dance is full of pineapples, some golden, some dusted white, as if frosted.  They're packed away in suitcases and become tangible memories, or passed from one dancer to the next with great reverence, reminding us that the pineapple is a symbol of hospitality.

The dance opens with Anna Kang Burgess seated in a pool of light, her back to the audience.  (Jennifer Tipton designed the lighting which was simple and gorgeous and breathtakingly right. Choreographers could learn from this. Don't hire the the rock band or the latest medal winner; go for a world-class lighting designer). Miyako Nitadori, who at times seems to be the dancing persona of the elder Burgess, at times to represent her descendants, or, perhaps, Every Emigré, is caught by the conflict everyone who has ever left home feels.  She wants to break free, and she's afraid to break free; she wants to remain connected to her family, her homeland, and yet she must tear herself away from them.

Nitadori wears a mask at times; she's the outsider in a group of women. No longer one of them, she can't leave. A man (Leonardo Giron Torres) tries to support her, encourage her. But he can't pick her up and carry her away, not in this story, anyway; she has to break free herself. Eventually, she packs her cream-colored robes in her suitcase and joins the others, though she's still odd woman out. Later, Burgess dances a gentle duet with Tati Valle-Riestra (who has been one of a group of four to this point). It's the work's one confusion: if Nitadori is the great-grandmother, than who is Valle-Riestra? Are Burgess and Riestra one manifestation of those ancestors and Nitadori and Torres another?

But Burgess's dances aren't literal; it's one of their many charms. The most beautiful movement segment has nothing to do with memories or pineapples. It's a dreamy dance for three women that's full of circular, slow swirling movements and jumps. The women's dancing traces the movement of a scarf caught by a gentle wind.

At the end, Anna Kang Burgess returns, walking slowly, with great dignity, to accept the gift of a pineapple from Nitadori. They exchange a glance—it's the kind of connection one might have with a beloved dead relative in a dream—and the younger woman walks into the wings. One is left with a great sense of peace, as though the older woman has given the younger one permission to go to her New World, and the younger woman has finally accepted that gift.

At a reception after the performance, Burgess accepted this year's Pola Nirenska Award (given annually for outstanding contributions to dance in honor of the late choreographer Pola Nirenska).

The photo, from an earlier version of Tracings, with different costumes, is of Miyako Nitadori and Dana Tai Soon Burgess.  Photographer: Mary Noble Ours

Oiginally published:
Volume 1, Number 7
November 10, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Alexandra Tomalonis




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 7, 2003