The portraits hang solemnly, unmoving at the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery. Choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess breathes life and movement into these two-dimensional works of art with a triptych of works he titled Portraits for the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater stage June 15-16. The first choreographer-in-residence at the Washington, D.C. art gallery, Burgess has immersed himself in the galleries, finding inspiration from the paintings and photographs that hang there. The pieces were originally made for the gallery. The transfer from the less-than-ideal atrium space with its soaring, wavy glass ceiling that bridges the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery was an auspicious one. The choreography fares much better framed on a proscenium stage than in the more open setting, where sight lines and cranky kids, muddy acoustics and no theatrical lighting marred the performance experience.
Burgess created I Am Vertical last year from a close study of the intimate single-room exhibit “Sylvia Plath: One Life.” And though the exhibit was small, displaying some of the poet’s self-portraits, along with ephemera like a typewriter, family photos and pages from her manuscripts, her inspiration proved monumental for Burgess in parsing this writer’s brief (she died by suicide at 30) but momentous life. I Am Vertical does a close reading of the relationship between Plath and her husband, fellow writer Ted Hughes. Hughes was both Plath’s great love and her destruction. Burgess shows us the multi-facets of a creative mind by using four dancers to represent Plath, while three perform as Hughes. Sometimes they move together, but sometimes they split into fragments of a personality. The stark but attractive set design by Kelly Moss Southall and Ben Sanders, with its black diagonal runway cutting across the white stage floor, and a writer’s desk at either end suggests the great chasm between Plath and Hughes. The choreography uses that black line to draw the two characters and also as a representation of the blackness of Plath’s suffering – she was diagnosed with clinical depression.
The women, robed in attractive burgundy dresses by Judy Hansen and mid-20th-century hairstyles, begin with a tad of jitterbug to a decaying version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” Their partners, clad in crisp gray slacks and shirts, bounce along, until they don’t, splintering off into their separate worlds. Burgess’s movement language here is specific – and parsed out succinctly, as Plath did with her words on the page. Each woman at times reflects what the others have done – one arm raised, the other to the side then one hand’s fingertips rest on the breastbone – suggesting tension between reaching out and turning inward. Plath’s life was a struggle between those two dichotomies. There are moments when a Sylvia and a Ted dance together, yet the various couplings among the four women and three men never suggest ease. Rather, a stiffness and formality subsumes these moments and, at times, a pair spars. He grabs a wrist. She turns away. And they both retreat to their respective desks, their alter egos silently observing. The soundtrack features some discomfiting strings, percussion and piano (Morton Feldman, Olivier Messiaen and Sophia Gubaidulina) and some archival interviews with Hughes and Plath. But most touching and telling are the segments when Plath reads her poem “I Am Vertical,” leading to the powerful, mordant ending: “But I would rather be horizontal” and “I shall be useful when I lie down finally” as each woman lies in down on the blackness in turn, the lights dimming.
Drawing from the exhibit “The Face of Battle: 9/11 to Now,” After 1001 Nights takes a subdued look at the battle-scarred. Laid out like a chess match, the dancers, clad in drab tan slacks and shirts suggesting military khakis, move strategically in formation, initially on opposing sides. At center, two men – a veteran and a young soldier – shuffle oversized army men around a table, the dancers follow suit mimicking the formation in live form. Their lives have been rendered as insignificant as playing pieces on a chess board. The stoic, contained approach to movement suits the military setting, which later heats up with some hand-to-hand duets, but, like most Burgess works, emotions and choreographic choices are held in check. No one gets out of hand or out of line, even with John Zorn’s roaming klezmer-like score of horns and woodwinds. Burgess suggests that though war has damaged these men – and women – the scars remain buried. These veterans and soldiers remain stoic, uncompromised.
Closing the evening, Confluence provides a neat companion to I Am Vertical in look and sensibility. They both channel mid-20th-century sentiments, styles and sensibilities. Here Burgess took inspiration from a photographic portrait of one of modern dance’s iconic second-generation figures, Doris Humphrey, from the exhibit “Dancing the Dream.” A humanist in her choreographic vision, Humphrey founded a movement technique based on fall and recovery, though not much of that physicality is evident. The portrait, shot by Barbara Morgan, is all light and shadow, grays and blacks, with her subject’s pale skin pierced by deep-set eyes. The five women and five men channel introspection and angst in their chic black costumes – the women with sheer skirts over leggings and midriff-baring tanks, the men again in neat pants and shirts. Some of Burgess’s favorite movements, including that arm pose — one up, one out (in ballet we’d call it third position) — and the touching of the breastbone repeat, along with some slashing side leg lifts and arms. Yet these choreographic elements are not quite unique enough to name them “signature” moves; they just happen to be favored moments in Burgess’s movement vocabulary.
That said, the piece is attractively danced. In fact, the company appears technically as strong as I’ve ever seen it, with a marked improvement by the men, who have often been less adept than the women in prior years. The accompanying score also channels a mid-20th-century sensibility, with Ernest Bloch’s sometimes nervous violin and incessant piano chords. Confluence comes together with a sense of grave purpose, a heaviness of intent that suggests Humphrey’s aesthetic – even her lightest and brightest works reflected a sense of importance and a notion of seriousness that made early and mid-20th-century moderns high artists. Like Humphrey, though, Burgess’s works are always well-polished, and his never veer far from pretty. He favors clean, articulate lines and his dancers comply. You won’t find dark, gut-wrenching moments – no contractions or contortions — and the dancers, even as soldiers and veterans slumped on the floor, maintain a sense of lift. They may give into gravity and fall, but they never collapse in heaps.
Beyond his residencies at the Smithsonian, Burgess, a full professor in the dance department at George Washington University, has toured his company throughout the world, often on the behest of the State Department. Originally founded to provide a voice for Asian American dancers and ideals, this program is one among many that have moved beyond his founding mission as the company celebrates its 25th year in Washington, D.C.
Running Time: Two hours, including two 15-minute intermissions.
Portraits, presented by Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, runs through June 16, 2018, at the Kennedy Center– 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or go online.