Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company at George Washington University by Rick Westerkamp

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Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company’s 20th Anniversary performance at The Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre is a wonderful celebration of Burgess’ career thus far, and a gentle reminder that he is not done telling stories through movement. The five choreographic works in the concert span Burgess’ career, and show a supreme talent in maintaining one’s aesthetic while taking their audience to various, specific emotional landscapes.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess. Photo by Mary Noble Ours.

The first piece of the evening, entitled Khaybet, is a heart-wrenching solo, set to a dynamic and beautifully haunting score by Philip Glass. The piece was based on Burgess’ trip to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he witnessed, “…completely covered women running from doorway to doorway.” The soloist, DTSB&CO Associate Director Connie Lin Fink, begins in an amber pool of light, overwrought. Her movement is staccato and strong, and she is wearing a long, sheer dress and a veil of the same material on her head. She is harboring a lifetime’s worth of being covered, physically and emotionally. She is methodical and sharp with her movement at the start, but once she taps into that emotion, she is gliding and rolling in a diagonal rectangle of light. Once the piece hits its emotional climax, the soloist returns to her special, and the rectangle pool of light where she bared her soul fades away. The final moment of the piece involves the soloist uncovering her face and looking upstage in profile, as opposed to face on, so she is still somewhat covered to the audience. The strength and specificity with which Fink moves in this solo is breathtaking. Her ability to physically embody the inability to communicate this lifetime of pain, and then switch to the wealth of emotion this recollection has caused is awe-inspiring.

The second solo, Dariush, was inspired by Burgess’ trip through the Khyber Pass, an area that is “…a gateway between East and West in upper Pakistan.” The solo begins with Katia Chupashko Norri, in a circular pool of light, performing a syncopated staccato solo to a rhythmically rich sound score. As a wash of light falls upon the entire stage, Norri permeates the space, turning and leaping with grace and ease. The cultural fusion Burgess experienced on his travels is evident in this solo, in the very specific and nuanced hand and head gestures at different points in the piece. The sound score had technical difficulties off-and-on during this piece, but had you been wearing earplugs you would not have known, thanks to Norri grace under pressure and transcendent presence. Her focus in this solo was unrelenting, and didn’t give off the slightest hint of there being a technical difficulty.

Burgess switches gears with the third piece of the evening, Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love. This piece is autobiographical, and navigates the psychological escapes Burgess went on while watching Charlie Chan reruns as an adolescent coming to terms with his nationality and sexuality. The piece begins by setting up the theatrical construct of Ricardo Alvarez as the Burgess character. The audience is immediately transported to this theatrical world, through the voice of a narrator, multiple projection backdrops, rich costuming, and detailed props. At the start of the piece, the narrator refers to the events that will follow as “the intersection of fantasy and reality.”

The emotional honesty with which Alvarez goes on this journey, the subtle combination of grace and power with which he moves, and his ability to navigate the magical realism of this piece make him the stand-out performance in this piece. Sarah Halzack and Kelly Moss Southall’s duet in the middle of the piece is performed with stunning synchronicity and professional polish, like a twenty-first century modern dance Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Burgess’ ability to bring both archetypal and real performances out of his dancers in one piece is a testament to the range and talent of his company. Burgess’ artistic choices in this piece are stellar, and the way he blurs the lines between mystery and reality in one section, and highlights a real moment in the next section is effortless. The sound score of the piece includes a familiar mix of genres, from the aria “Nessun Dorma,” to “Dream a Little Dream.” This piece blurs the lines between genuine and whimsical with such originality that the audience feels like they are seeing this movement for the first time and hearing these songs for the first time.

The premiere of the evening, entitled Caverns, is an intricate and organic look at the process of recollecting a past relationship. A woman, danced by the regal Connie Lin Fink, is watching herself and a former lover, danced by the supremely talented Katia Chupashko Norri and Felipe Oyarzun, experience their relationship for the first time. While the couple sails and slices through their relationship, and the stage space, with innocence, Fink experiences the relationship having lived these moments already. Burgess plays with the distance between the couple and the woman in visually pleasing ways. Fink experiences comfort in experiencing the piece within close proximity of the young girl, and experiences discomfort the closer she gets to the young man. Watching Fink perform the young couple’s duet as a ghostly solo is soul-stirring. This piece is perfectly cast, because Fink, Norri, and Oyarzun embody the vacant piano score by Arvo Part with heightened awareness.

The final piece of the evening, Becoming American, showcases Burgess’ ability to tell other people’s stories. Norri leads this piece, which is the story of her adoption from Korea and beginnings in America, while photographs of her at a young age are projected on screens and suitcases. Her captivating presence guides the audience from the plane ride, to the airport, to her experiences at home and in school. Watching her navigate through an ensemble of dancers dressed in identical, unfamiliar costumes and masks gives the audience a taste of all that she experienced at such a young age. The interactions between the confused Norri and her eager parents, danced by the honestly synchronal Halzack and Southall, are truly heartbreaking. The sheer excitement on the faces of Norri’s her parents, matched with her overwhelmed state of being have you routing for this redefined American family from their first meeting.

Another equally heartbreaking moment comes when Norri is in ESL class, being taught by and in class with masked ensemble members, performing to an excerpt of an ESL class. In the end, the family is seated at their dining room table, in a projected picture frame. This is a happy ending, due to the undying love this couple has for their new daughter, but through Burgess’ storytelling the audience is aware that there are obstacles ahead and the road will be fraught before all of the issues are resolved.

The physically adroit and emotionally acute DTSB&CO has an impassioned and impressive showing lined up for you this weekend at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre. You are certain to leave the theatre talking about Burgess’ technical collaborations with Lighting Designer Carl Gudenius, Costume Designer Judy Hansen, Sound Designer Laura McDonald, and Video Designers Ricardo Alvarez and Sara Brown. There is no doubt that these artists are an integral part of this concert, and their contributions elevate the five choreographic works. The bottom line is that Burgess is nowhere near finished conveying stories through his precise movement aesthetic, and last night’s audience is eagerly anticipating what this critically acclaimed company and choreographer will do next.

From Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company’s 20th Anniversary Concert. Photo courtesy of Dana Tai Burgess & Company’s website.

Running Time: One hour and forty-five minutes with one intermission.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. performs tonight and tomorrow September 22 and 23, 2012 at 8 PM at Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre – 800 21st Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.