D.C. choreographer and dancer Dana Tai Soon Burgess feels he has finally arrived just in time for the new millennium.
It was an exciting year for the svelte dancer and artistic director of Moving Forward, a Northwest, Washington, D.C.-based dance company that focuses on Asian and Asian-American themes.
“Career wise, I feel that things are going exceptionally well. Everything is expanding at a wonderful rate right now. I’m just so happy to be able to do what I love,” Mr. Burgess, 31, says.
Mr. Burgess, who lives in Dupont Circle in Northwest, teamed up with a group of talented artists, including local sculptor John Dreyfuss.
Mr. Dreyfuss created a monumental, movable sculpture as a prop in Mr. Burgess’ dance production, “Gandhara: East West Passages” and its companion piece, “Helix,” also choreographed by Mr. Burgess.
The production debuted to standing ovations in November as part of the Kennedy Center’s “Something New” series.
Perhaps it was the unique collaboration between the sculpture, the dance, the lighting and the costumes that evoked the moving response.
For the soft-spoken Mr. Burgess, it was the rare opportunity to collaborate with some talented artists. It was an honor, he says to work with renowned lighting director Jennifer Tipton, fashion designer Han Feng and Mr. Dreyfuss.
“What’s so interesting about John’s work is that it has movement. There’s the capacity to rotate them or lift them. So, they become interactive. And, it’s the way he looks at shape and form it’s wonderful working with him,” Mr. Burgess says.
Mr. Dreyfuss, who lives in Northwest, holds Mr. Burgess in equally high esteem. He’s also a long-standing admirer of the late sculptor Isamu Noguchi and the legendary dancer-choreographer Martha Graham.
“Dana in every way speaks to that tradition. Collaboration empowers him,” Mr. Dreyfuss says.
“He has an enormous and rich sense of art history, and he has a willingness to be part of a large team process. Those are all of the ingredients that make a long-term project possible at this level,” he says.
Mr. Burgess says he met Mr. Dreyfuss several years ago at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The two immediately clicked and began pursuing a project involving sculpture and dance.
“It was great timing because I was thinking about quality visual arts and the stage being a canvass,” Mr. Burgess says.
The eye-catching sculpture [in Gandhara] played an integral part in conveying this message, Mr. Burgess says.
“At times the sculpture represented a war machine; at times it was the actual landscape. At other times a barrier and a representation of the future. It moved around the stage, and each angle had its own personality,” Mr. Burgess says.
In “Gandhara,” the second in a trilogy of dance, light and sculpture performances, Mr. Burgess’ dance tells the story of Alexander the Great from childhood to adulthood. He says it deals with the conqueror’s obsession with going East to Gandhara, a region near the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“He is a figure that historically has been misinterpreted and reinterpreted. According to the time period that people are exploring, sometimes he’s seen as a cruel conqueror and at other times a very compassionate cultural leader,” Mr. Burgress says.
“Yet within all of those different interpretations there is always a mention of Alexander the Great’s sensitivity and intelligence to rule people and his undying quest to come in contact with other cultures,” he says.
Mr. Burgess wants to continue working on exciting projects with this talented team of artists. Next spring he plans to travel to China, where he will begin research on “Alexander’s Dream,” the final piece of the trilogy.
Mr. Burgess choreographed a national touring show for the Kennedy Center’s education department that was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale, “The Nightingale.” The production for young audiences premiered at the Kennedy Center. After that, it toured 28 cities and reached 80,000 young people, Mr. Burgess says. He feels strongly about children being exposed to art.
“I think that exposure to art and culture needs to take place as early as possible. So that each person becomes an integrated artistic citizen within their community,” he says.
Then, he dashed to the Shakespeare Theatre at the Lansburgh in Northwest to choreograph “The Trojan Women,” directed by JoAnne Akalaitis.
Mr. Burgess studied martial arts from age 8 to 16. This led him to pursue a career in dance, the Albuquerque, N.M., native says.
“Martial arts gives a person incredible discipline of mind and body. I think that’s really the main component. It keeps you focused and able to visualize.
“A dancer must be able to visualize and actualize on stage. You’ve got to go into an emotional moment and feel it,” Mr. Burgess says with a smile.
Mr. Burgess moved from New Mexico to Washington in 1989 to dance with local companies and with companies located along the East Coast.
Two years later, he decided to pursue his master’s degree in fine arts from George Washington University. He also made a transition in his career: He effortlessly moved from dancer to choreographer.
“As a dancer you are often more of a vehicle for choreography,” he says.
“As a choreographer, the creative process becomes more in-depth, and there’s more of an ability to see the shaping and formulating of the overall structure of the work as opposed to taking on only one specific role of the work,” he says.