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Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co.

'Chino Latino,' 'Khaybet,' 'Meditations' and 'Hyphen'

by Carmel Morgan

October 24, 2008 -- George Washington University, Lisner Auditorium, Washington, DC

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company (“DTSB & Co.”) is a DC-area based modern dance troupe that performs works reflecting the Asian-American perspective of its founder and artistic director, Dana Tai Soon Burgess, and also the various backgrounds of its dancers. Although the 40-year-old Burgess had at one time announced that he was retiring from dancing to focus more fully on directing and choreography, the audience was treated to seeing him dancing again in the recent opening of his company’s sixteenth season.

DTSB & Co. premiered Burgess’s latest work “Hyphen,” a dense dance packed with meaning.  “Hyphen” refers on one level to the hyphen in the word “Asian-American,” but it also speaks to all sorts of divides that may prevent an individual from fully embracing his or her identity.  “Hyphen” used videos from the 1960s and 1970s by famed Korean-American video artist Nam June Paik.  The black and white videos showed segments of bodies – hands, faces, eyes, and a shirt being either buttoned or unbuttoned, all of which conveyed a message of disjointedness.  Likewise “Hyphen” employed the dancers, who wear gray and black, plus sounds clips of interviews with them, to address the universal desire for wholeness and belonging.  The accompaniment, a montage by Laura MacDonald featuring the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto, provided an eerie heartbeat that moved the piece along.

Some of the most stunning dancing in “Hyphen” involved dramatic weight shifts.  Dancers fell forward on their arms, push-up style, only to kick their legs up behind them, curl them around, and suddenly come to standing.  At other times, they simply bowed to one another.  These movements displayed both strength and vulnerability.  The dancers seemed to be on similar journeys, but they appeared to be compelled more by outside forces rather than by forces from within.  A dancer, at the end, grabbed a video camera, its red light flashing, and turned it toward the audience.  Ultimately, “Hyphen” left us to ponder for ourselves the question of whether hyphens connect or separate.

Also included in the program was a revised version of last year’s “Chino Latino.”  This year “Chino Latino” had, in addition to the new costumes, an overall new feel.  Gone were the brightly colored silks in Chinese and Latin styles.  Instead, the costumes were much darker black and red combinations, and a similar darkness, tinged with sadness, characterized the reworking of this piece.  According to Burgess, he “reset the work in a silent-film environment in which archetypal characters continue to play out their roles.”  The historic songs about Asians in Peru, Argentina, and Colombia highlighted the evening’s theme of yearning to belong.  Burgess, who the program listed as an “understudy,” danced beautifully in the second duet.  Although the movement was controlled, even slightly robotic, the dancers, and especially Burgess, exalted in their roles.

“Khaybet,” another work in last year’s season debut, appeared again, but without changes.  This work masterfully explored one’s surrender to death.  Jennifer Rain Ferguson, covered from head to toe in brown, with even her face covered by a veil, moved as if fighting indecision.  The work was so full of expression that not seeing the dancer’s face was no impediment to understanding her emotion.  Ferguson occasionally shook and shuddered, went to the floor and perched upside down, but mostly she swept and spun upright on a long, brightly lit diagonal.  Finally, she uncovered her head, but her back was to the audience as she walked directly into the source of light, toward her spiritual home.

Finally, there was “Meditations,” commissioned in 2008 by Ballet Memphis, which centers around “the realization that individuals in a relationship are no longer on the same path.”  As with “Khaybet,” spirituality permeated the work.  Six dancers, in varying numbers, danced in sections titled “Constraint,” “Dissent,” “Sorrow,” and “Transcendence.”  The women wore muted orange tops and bottoms, and the men soft shades of green.  A dialogue took place between the sexes in a series of exchanges of movement and stillness.  The women touched the faces of the men, and the men placed their hands on the women’s backs, but there remained a palpable distance between them.  Dancers tellingly looked away from each other.  As a group, they carved the space with heaviness. One dancer created an anxious butterfly, joining her hands at the base and shifting them to and fro. .  Balance, shape, and symmetry governed “Mediations,” creating a poignant picture of couples negotiating distance.

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