When Washington dancer-choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess presents the world premiere of “Silk Roads” early next month at the Kennedy Center, he will be finishing a four-year creative journey that took him to Pakistan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea.
“Silk Roads,” commissioned by the Kennedy Center, is the final section of his full-length “Trilogy.” The other sections are “Helix,” first performed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1998, and “Mandala.”
Mr. Burgess, 33, was born in this country, as was his father. His mother, however, was Korean, and his work reflects his dual heritage. His movement is enriched by the curved back, expressive hands, undulating heads and serene, grounded stance of Oriental dance; the strong contractions of the torso in modern dance; and the free, presentational stance of ballet.
The choreographer sees this East-West blend as a natural outcome of his background.
“I came to realize that I’m smack inside both these worlds,” Mr. Burgess says, “and part of the reason I dance and create work is to feel the ease of being in the middle, between two worlds. Besides the Eastern and Western influences on my movement, the emotional nuances and the different sense of time and timing come from my very personal experiences as an Amerasian.”
His parents were both visual artists and that influenced him to have a painterly slant on his stage work, Mr. Burgess says.
He grew up in Santa Fe, N.M. At age 9, he met the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who was an important collaborator with the seminal modern dancer Martha Graham.
The sculptor made an impression on Mr. Burgess.
“He was the first Amerasian person I ever met, aside from my brother,” he says. “I think my parents wanted me to meet someone who was Eurasian and also actualizing on a very high level.”
Mr. Burgess uses the word actualizing often his term for seeing an artistic vision translated into a finished artwork.
“I never forgot that meeting,” he says. “He talked a lot about Graham’s works before I even knew what they were.”
Mr. Burgess’ coming to Washington was full of drama and trauma. He was a student at the University of New Mexico when the Washington director of Dance Exchange, Liz Lerman, spotted him in a dance class there. She invited him to join her company. Eager to dance, he left college and moved here.
“A few weeks later, she said, ‘Oh, we didn’t get the grant that your salary was based on.’ I had this one-way ticket here and no savings. I had dropped out of school in order to come here.”
Looking back on that time, Mr. Burgess is philosophical. “Sometimes the school of hard knocks is the best school. I took all kinds of jobs I survived.
“The low point,” he says, laughing, “was a job I had at a shopping mall going up to people and saying, ‘Oh, please, try this perfume.’”
His luck changed when Maida Withers, director of dance at George Washington University, saw him working at Dance Place in Northeast Washington. She told him if he finished his undergraduate degree, she would arrange for him to have a fellowship for a master’s degree at George Washington.
Mr. Burgess went back to New Mexico, finished his degree and then earned a master of fine arts degree here.
“For me, that was life-changing,” he says. “It was a moment when I needed to immerse myself in an educational community, learn about pedagogy and curricular development and be able to make a living from teaching and to teach well, not just do body positions. And it also gave me the chance to explore my own choreography, not only dance in other people’s work.”
Mr. Burgess soon founded his own company. When he was teaching a workshop at the Corcoran Gallery of Art six years later, he met sculptor John Dreyfuss.
“Mr. Dreyfuss asked me if I would be interested in collaborating on something in the spirit of Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi. I remembered my childhood conversation with Isamu and I thought, this is what I need right now to feed my soul,” he says
The choreographer says he believes that the three-dimensionality of sculpture propels dancers into a different space. The late Miss Graham had talked about an “inner space.”
“I feel so much closer to the subconscious when I’m next to the helix sculpture onstage,” he says. “It’s a very abstract thing to talk about, but it really does change the psychological state of the performer.”
Mr. Dreyfuss and Mr. Burgess worked together closely. “When we were talking about actualization, he asked me [that] if we were going to do this project really well who would I most like to have do the lighting?” Mr. Burgess says.
The choreographer thought immediately of the celebrated lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, who does the lighting for Paul Taylor, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and theaters and operas. Before he lost his nerve, he called her up. Miss Tipton came to Washington, saw his dance and Mr. Dreyfuss’ sculpture and agreed to the collaboration.
“Since then we’ve been great friends,” Mr. Burgess says. “She’s definitely a mentor in that she doesn’t just talk about lights. She talks about the dance and the consciousness of light. She asks, ‘What do you think light represents here?’ She told me, ‘Even if you’re not looking directly at a shadow onstage, if you project your consciousness to feel that shadow, then the audience will feel it also.’ That was a huge breakthrough for me in thinking about how to perform. She has an affinity to seeing light in a more spiritual, metaphysical, Eastern way.”
“Helix,” the first part of the trilogy for which the three artists collaborated, will be followed on the program by “Mandala,” with the same trio of creators. Mr. Dreyfuss made a large sculpture for “Mandala,” performed last year under a different name, and now Mr. Burgess has completely reworked the choreography.
“I realized the sculpture is very linear, so now the movements are very harsh and linear, too. The nature of each sculpture inspires the movement, or at least influences where I’m going to start,” Mr. Burgess says.
For “Silk Roads,” the final, all-new section, Mr. Dreyfuss has created a large sculpture “almost like a moon,” Mr. Burgess says and that has prompted softer movements and curving lines.
The choreographer sees “Silk Roads” as a metaphor for life itself, not just as the multiple routes that served to disseminate religion, culture and material goods in earlier times.
He adds, however, that his trips to Pakistan in 1999 and to China, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan a year later were prompted by his desire to create a work about the Silk Roads. In return, the journey shaped his finished product.
“We’re all on our own journey through life: People come in and out of our lives, you fall in and out of love, people you know die,” Mr. Burgess says. “From traveling in Asia, I’m struck by the length of its history. They have a concept of goingness, or cyclic time. For me, thinking about this continuity of time and where did my family come from generations ago and how did I end up back there on my trip? made it become so much more personal. My ‘Silk Roads’ is less concerned with economic commerce than with the paths of our life.”
WHAT: Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Company
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Dec. 7 and Dec. 8
WHERE: Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW