Dancing to Survive [The George Washington University]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Cover story / Summer 1995
Photo of Nancy Dorn © Katherine Lambert
IT’S DUSK ON A SATURDAY November evening in downtown Washington, DC. While most 20somethings are preparing for a night on the town, a dozen Asian Americans are sitting on the floor of a rehearsal room at the Kennedy Center.
“We are preparing for a January performance, and there’s no time to lose,” says dancer Stacy Topazian, referring to the “Passages From the journey,” a 60-minute work that centers on the Asian immigrant experience. The program will make its debut on January 20-21.
She turns to talk to Dana Tai Soon Burgess, the 27-year-old founder of Moving Forward: Asian-American Contemporary Dance Company. Dressed in his signature black turtleneck and black pants, Burgess has the aura of a Zen master. His choreographing, like his words, are calm and deliberate.
“We use modem dance movements such as arabesques, leg lifts, jumps, and leaps as a way to express the subject matter,” he says. “We also use some traditional East Asian movements, but mostly we create a vocabulary through dance which communicates a story line to the audience.”
A large sweeping movement may convey the crashing of a wave, he explains. A giant jump signifies tremendous energy. A soft flow shows a gentle feeling. For instance, one dancer, is working on a segment about leaving her homeland of Vietnam and to convey her message, she uses a suitcase as a prop. Her movement is smooth and lyrical to signify emotional pain. “The movements and their meanings become obvious to the audience,” Burgess says. “Our dances are the stories of the immigrant experience.”
It all comes together when the dances are set to traditional Asian string instruments and gongs that are put through an electronic synthesizer to create a post-modem effect.
“The way the music is created relates directly to the work we do,” says Burgess. “We use tradition as the jumping-off point and then move
forward into a new contemporary score or dance piece.”
The Beginning of Moving Forward
Burgess started the dance company while attending GWs Master of Fine Arts in Dance program from 1991 to 1993. His thesis project was the creation of an Asian-American dance troupe. “At the time, there were few outlets for Asian dancers,” he says. “They hadn’t been able to mobilize on a large scale.”
A group of 12 GW student dancers met at the University three times a week and soon other Asian-American dancers from the area joined. Within a year, the group was invited to performed at GWs Marvin Center—and they began to be noticed.
The Washington Post said after the January 1995 performances at Dance Place: “One could not escape the feeling that Burgess has dedicated himself to the raising of consciousness of Asian-American creativity on the part of his American contemporaries, and this goal takes precedence over any purely self-motivated designs. Washington is fortunate to have such an artist in its midst and clearly owes him respect and attention.”
Today, Moving Forward performs regularly at the Kennedy Center, Lisner Theater and Dance Place, an independent dance theater in the District. He has also won grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities and the D.C. Community Humanities Council, as welt as corporate donations from sponsors including Anheuser Busch, the Meyer Foundation, and AT&T.
Although some of the grants dried up last year, Burgess says he still tries to give all program participants a stipend.
“When I came to GW for graduate school, I had an idea that I wanted to start a dance company that would serve the Asian community,” says the Korean-American. “It is important to me to pay attention to multiculturalism—but that means equity for all cultures. It’s not just a black-white thing. The Latino, Asian-American, African community should all have an equal say.”
When it comes to facing limits due to race, the usually calm zen-like Burgess admits prejudice pushes his buttons.
“I get mad at how multiculturalism is looked at, and at how sometimes I feel marginalized. But I don’t dwell on it. What I can do is try to make a change through my art form.”
Powerful feelings translate into powerful dances, says Stacy Topazian, assistant director of Moving Forward.
“When we choreograph a dance, we always pose a question to the dancers regarding the theme,” says Topazian, who is a 1993 grad of the GW Master of Fine Arts program. “The last piece, about taking a journey, got the dancers thinking about what they would take—and what they’d leave behind—if they were forced to flee their homes.”
Those responses were translated to movements, which were incorporated into the dance. “This personal attachment also enriches the piece, and gives all the dancers a personal stake in it. Ultimately, the dance is richer for it.”
Dance of the immigrant
Burgess’ goal is to ensure the imagery of Asia comes alive during all of the company’s performances. Props play a large part.
During a piece called “Red Cans, White and Blue Bowls,” performed last summer at the Kennedy Center to a sold-out audience, delicate blue china bowls were juxtaposed with bright red Coke cans. In other dances, masks are often used as metaphors for the past and the present. Other props, such as suitcases and veils, convey the plight of the immigrant leaving one culture for another.
All of Burgess’ dances convey messages. Some are about keeping secrets. A few discuss the drama of the generations of trading one cultural identity for another, or searching to find a balance between the two.
“We are not trying to infiltrate Caucasian companies, telling them to change to incorporate our perspective,” he says. “Instead, we are making a place for ourselves, a place where all Asian-Americans can dance their thoughts and feelings.”
The program, “Passages from the Journey,” is a stream-of-consciousness story about the archetypal immigrant coming to America. It starts out as a group piece, then moves to a duet between a man and woman who are recent immigrants.
“The man wants to stay behind and not learn English or assimilate,” Burgess shares. “The woman wants to continue her growth. The man tries to stop her from going off in a different direction, but her will is strong. In the end she just walks away.
“This conflict reflects a change in tradition,” says Burgess. “Of course, not everyone in the audience will pick up on the subtleties, but they will understand the struggle between a man and a woman. In this way, the piece appeals to everyone. These emotions are universal.”
Leading the way
Now that he’s found success, Burgess is committed to helping other Korean artists make their voices heard.
HIRO, a Washington area visual artist, created a 5-by-10-foot mural for “Passages from the Journey.” It was inspired by Burgess’ choreography, she says, pleased to have her artwork installed at Dance Place for the January performances. She also painted murals for several other of Moving Forward’s 1993 performances, including one at the University of the District of Columbia and another at the Marvin Center Theater.
Several musicians have helped him achieve his goal, including Christopher Nickles, a local composer, is responsible for creating the post-modem sound Burgess strives for—including the score for “Red Cans, White and Blue Bowls.”
Tom Lyle, the guitarist for the Washington-based band Dizzy Dizzy, has also been a collaborator. Burgess commissioned Lyle to work on the sound design for a dance performance called “Plantation,” about his mother’s experience growing up in Hawaii on a pineapple plantation.
Lyle was also hired to write a score for a dance video project, “Urban Journeys,” filmed in 1993 on the streets of Washington’s Chinatown. Financed by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, it was filmed by Washington, D.C., producer and filmmaker Linda Lewett.
“There were 12 dancers, including Asians, African-Americans and Anglos,” Lewett says. “That really added to the theme of the show, which was to show the diversity of the changing neighborhood. It worked perfectly.”
She says making the nine-minute dance video was exciting, especially because she was fortunate to collaborate with a creative master like Burgess. “He didn’t want to do a traditional documentary. That was very refreshing. Usually when we do a documentary, the approach is to make a film about the company. Dana wanted to be more creative. We showed a lot of the building fronts that were now decaying, the restaurants, the stereotypical images of Chinatown such as some of the billboards.”
Whether he’s dancing on a stage, or in the streets, Burgess promises he will continue to explore the complicated issues around being an immigrant.
“Whether you are first generation or fourth, as an immigrant you are forced to decide what parts of your native culture do you keep and what parts you throw away,” he concludes. “I want Asians of all ages to know they don’t have to drop their cultural background, especially things that they are really proud of We don’t have to forget about our past just so we can survive here. We can bring our own perspectives to America, and thrive.”