Pirouettes in a pandemic? It’s possible. Just ask Dana Tai Soon Burgess, Founder and Artistic Director of his Washington D.C. based, eponymous dance company which has long been known as the preeminent dance troupe in the nation’s capital. He’s also been declared the “Diplomat of Dance.”
Burgess, like many arts organizations, pivoted to online platforms to showcase his work. Last month, his company released their first video in the series entitled “The Social Justice Leaders Series.” It will feature icons including : William Ayers Campbell, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, J. Rosamond Johnson, Earl Warren and the team of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, based on an ongoing exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, “Struggle for Justice”
Later this year, Burgess plans for in-person audiences with Island, a repertory work inspired by the Chinese American immigrant experience of coming to America through Angel Island in California.
Manhattan Digest recently spoke with the twice awarded Fulbright scholar about the series, his aesthetic, and creative approach.
MD: You’ve choreographed a number of dance pieces based on historical events and figures. Is your upcoming Social Justice Leaders series something that had been in the works for a while, or was it spawned by the American race reckoning in June of last year?
DTSB: I have a long history of creating works around social justice icons. As the conversation in America became more poignant and heated, I felt like it was important to dedicate this season to social justice icons. There’s an exhibition at the National Portrait gallery called “Struggle for Justice” and they have these wonderful portraits of iconic figures who have been real leaders within social movements. I felt that we could create these videos that were educational, which brought the portraits to life, and included dance as an art form instead of just showing dance as archival. I think that these are important pieces. We have to do everything we can, including programming in the arts which educates people. Violence comes from ignorance and the ability for the arts to communicate beyond language or socio-economic or political differences is so profound.
They will roll out monthly for the next seven months. Hopefully, we’ll be back to live performance by then.
MD: Are there any prolific individuals or events you’d like to portray through dance?
DTSB: I always have a running list like that in mind because I do tend to schedule my work two years out. I’m working on a project about Maya Lin. I’m also interested in Executive order 9066. My parents are both visual artists and I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s where I met architect Isamu Noguchi. When I grew older, I studied the Michio Itō technique of dance. He was the first Asian-American choreographer. Both of these men were incarcerated in camps in the 1940s. The camp in which Ito was held was later leveled and they built a neighborhood. That was the neighborhood I grew up in, so I have such personal experiences related to that. So, I really hope to do something with their stories. As artists, we can never get away from the social contexts in which we’re living. Creativity is constantly trying to make order out of disorder.
MD: Has the last year blocked, inspired, or maintained creativity for you?
DTSB: One thing we have as artists is the ability to problem solve. My dance company was very fortunate in that we were able to do zoom rehearsals. Now, we’re able to do it in person again. We’re also able to go on-site for the videos. We are all COVID-19 compliant and have been able to continue and I think that it’s been a testament to the resilience of artists. So that has made me think more creatively about what is the performance platform of the future post pandemic? I think that our audiences and platforms have been changed forever.
MD: Where do you think creativity for dance comes from?
DTSB: The inspiration comes from our whole environment. What happens is that the subconscious realm is the well of creativity. So many of the images that I create are informed by information that filters through the conscious then makes it to the unconscious and comes back out again in the form of a dance or creative abstraction in a way that tells a story.
MD: Do you imagine in your head what a piece should look like or do you collaborate with your troupe members and create as you go?
DTSB: I have the concept and tableaus. I envision what it could look like and then when I work with the dancers in the studio, I work with them to give them phrases, but I also allow for improvisation. Then I create a scenario that makes sense in telling the story. It’s collaborative and I want input from my dancers because there is such diversity among us.
MD: Do you listen to the music first and set that to the dance or do you create the dance first and then choose songs?
DTSB: Sometimes the music will drive the sections of the dance. Other times, I will choose it later in the process. So I’ve done both. I love musicality. Many artists are getting away from it and I think it’s a lost art. I really believe in the synergy of the moving body and the moving instrumentation. I love that interface.
MD: Your Company is in its 28-year season. At what point along that journey did you realize that you had “made it” in the ballet world?
DTSB: I think I realized when the company had its 15th anniversary that we had staying power and that we were going to become Washington’s main contemporary dance company. I could just see it happening where everything started aligning. I feel really really lucky about that because as you can understand, dance is a difficult field because there are so many talented people out there. But I’ve tried to stick with my own aesthetic and in the long run, it’s the best possible thing I could have done. It’s the uniqueness of an artistic voice that has staying power, not the redundancy.
MD: Do you look for dancers who have your style or do you adopt them to your technique?
DTSB: I think that it takes a few years for new dancers to feel comfortable in the style. We have company classes and I look for something very unique for the choreography, but I do look for a dancer that has a strong modern dance and ballet background, and one who has trained in some other form of dance, which could be anything: West African, tap, Irish step dance, Korean, ballroom, or anything. Everyone in the company has an interesting story. We have a really diverse company and I think that’s part of our success. We’re able to come from such diverse perspectives but we come together as a family to create new pieces. As a director, I want to create a happy, healthful, creative environment.
Watch the first video in the Social Justice Leader series, “A Portrait of Marian Anderson” here – http://dtsbdc.org/social_justice_video_series/.