Choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess discusses inspiration, artistic expression at book talk and performance

February 28, 2023

Dana Burgess at the Press Club

National Press Club President Eileen O'Reilly and choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about dance and Burgess’ development as an artist, during a Feb. 23 Press Club event. Photos by Peter West.

Originally published by The National Press Club. February 27, 2023. By Eleanor Herman

It was the shadows darting from doorway to doorway that intrigued Dana Tai Soon Burgess when he visited a village in the tribal borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A State Department cultural ambassador promoting understanding through the global language of dance, Burgess soon realized the shadows were heavily veiled women.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess
Burgess described his youth in Santa Fe

Burgess recalled that realization when he discussed his memoir, "Chino and the Dance of the Butterfly," with Club president Eileen O’Reilly, managing editor of standards and training at Axios, at a  book event Feb. 23 at the National Press Club.

Burgess, a renowned choreographer called “the poet laureate of dance” by The Washington Post, turned the image of darting women into a work he named “The Shadow.” Having studied the Egyptian Book of the Dead, he asked himself, “What happens to someone who lived under a veil her whole life at the moment of death?”

The artist was joined by five members of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company who performed three works. Joan Ayup danced “The Shadow” in a costume and veil the color of desert sand. The dancer contorted in frantic spasms, trapped, afraid, and monstrously beautiful. At the end, she lifts her veil. We see her face. She is free.

Burgess discussed growing up in a largely Hispanic community in Santa Fe, the child of a White father and a mother of Korean descent. His parents were visual artists, active in the abstract art community. Seeing their creative process, he began to view the stage as a canvas and the dancer’s movements as brush strokes.

He described the culture shock of leaving the warmth and spirituality of Santa Fe for Washington, D.C., where many people lived in a “frigid bubble” of competitive zip codes.

His 30 years as a State Department cultural ambassador inspired his choreography. “A dancer grows up in a studio with mirrors on the wall for much of their life,” he said. “It was amazing to see the world and travel.”

In the tribal borderlands, he practiced dance steps inside homes as dancing in public was prohibited as anti-Islamic. In one household, he saw a pale young man with an IV who explained that he had been shot for doing so.

Members of Burgess’ dance troupe perform during the Feb. 23 event.

As a gay Asian-American, Burgess said he has always found himself “chasing social justice icons. There are untold, unheard stories in our American consciousness,” he said. “I’m always looking to mine unique voices that I haven’t heard… They create the lens which is the center point through which I create.”

His “Tribute to Marian Anderson” was performed by a black-clad duet, Joan Ayup and Felipe Oyarzun. Ayup—sweeping grace and fiery determination—was hemmed in by her partner, dancing with him even as she struggled against him, a reference, perhaps, to the limitations Anderson faced as a Black performer in the Jim Crow Era.

His “Surroundings: A Tribute to Maya Lin” was created for the Chinese American sculptor who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. at the age of 21. The dance was performed by a trio. It was, however, more like a simultaneous duet and a solo as two dancers, Christine Doyle and Justin Metcalf-Burton, were always intimately engaged while the third, Asian-American dancer Christin Arthur representing Lin, danced around them. Lin’s husband died suddenly in 2021, and the solo dancer seemed to be reflecting on the memories of a love lost. 

Burgess wrote his memoir during what he called “the great quieting,” the pandemic years, when he finally had time to meditate on his inner terrain, as he calls it. As the artistic director of a dance company, he was always planning two seasons ahead, rarely living in the moment.

The ballroom turned into a dance stage during the February 23 event.

Burgess addressed the hardships the pandemic caused for dancers. Not only were live performances shut down, but the lifespan of a dancer is short, and a three-year career loss is substantial in an occupation already limited by relative youth. Dance companies are still struggling, he pointed out. “We need to support dance. It’s a pivotal moment that means the life or death for dance companies.”

With a nod to the Press Club, Burgess said, “Dancing is like writing. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are symbols, a crescendo, a climax.”

Perhaps. But his dancers and choreography communicated raw energy and searing emotion directly into the hearts of the spectators, without the intervention of words.