Korean Culture magazine
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Korean Culture magazine
It’s a cold Sunday night in November, just around dusk, and a sweaty Dana Tai Soon Burgess is in the middle of a complicated choreography session. Dressed in his signature black turtleneck and black pants, he stands in the center of room with a female dance partner at his side. They are working through a routine that will be the central point of their next performance, “Passages from the Journey.”
Like all of his dance routines, Burgess is utilizing dance to express his thoughts on being Korean American. All of Burgess’ dances covey messages. Some are about telling stories and keeping secrets, others are about the heaviness of life.
“Passages from the Journey” focuses on the drama that immigrants have faced through the generations. It is about the struggle that ensues when Asian Americans feel forced to trade one cultural identity for another, and the search to find a balance for both.
Burgess says finding the balance is the goal of his life’s work, which began to take form two years ago when he was mobilizing a group of Asian American dancers in Washington, D.C. Called “Moving Forward: Asian American Contemporary Dance Company,” the troupe is an outgrowth of Burgess’ master’s thesis.
A graduate student in dance at The George Washington University (GW) from 1991 to 1993, Burgess says that when he started the company, there were few outlets for Korean and Asian American dancers.
“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 Burgess. “They hadn’t been able to mobilize on a large scale. It is important to me to pay attention to multiculturalism, but it is also important that multiculturalism be about equality. It’s not just a black/white thing. I believe in cultural equity.
“The Latino, Asian American, and African communities should all have an equal say. So, I tried to entrench that idea, not ghettoize it, but entrench it in a dance company. We started out having all Asian and Asian American dancers, and tried to see what that work would bring about.”
When the company first began, a group of twelve student dancers met at GW three times a week and started creating contemporary dances. With Burgess as choreographer, they began to build a repertoire. Other dancers from the area started joining, and the group began performing around Washington. Time and again, they were a hit.
Since then, Burgess and his company have received many accolades. The Washington Post said of Burgess after a performance last January, “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.”
Moving Forward with D.C.‘s Youths
Moving Forward started out as a summer youth program for young Asian immigrants and Asian Americans between fourteen and twenty-four years of age. In 1993, eighteen young people of diverse backgrounds participated in a six-week summer workshop. They learned forms of modern and traditional Asian dance, went to see Asian art collections at the Smithsonian Institute, and listened to guest speakers such as Kathleen Hom, the D.C. mayor’s Asian/Pacific Islander Affairs officer.
The program was funded by the D.C. City Commission, which allowed for an added bonus for the young people—they were paid. “I think it is very important to pay them,” says Burgess. “The money makes up for lost wages they would have earned at a summer job. It also showed them they are a vital part of the program.” The D.C. grant money dried up last year, but Burgess says he still tries to give all program participants a stipend.
More important than paying the youths money are Burgess’ workshops—which now run year round. The programs touch at least 100 Asian American youths annually, and with Burgess as mentor, they learn to translate emotion into motion.
“A lot of times kids know something is wrong, but they can’t express it. Maybe their vocabulary isn’t in place, or they just don’t want to speak up about something that happened,” he says. “It’s easier for kids to express themselves through a kinesthetic medium. People are movement-oriented at that age, and it just makes sense for them to ‘speak’ through dance.”
One of Burgess’ biggest supporters is his teacher and mentor Maida Withers, who was instrumental in helping Burgess start his company.
“Dana is a young artist who is emerging and is really making a difference,” says Withers, who has been a professor of dance at GW since 1965. “He is extremely intelligent and extremely disciplined. We are lucky he has decided to stay in Washington.”
Withers says from the moment she began working with Burgess, he made it clear that his interest was in working with the members of the Asian community.
“Because GW has such a strong population of Asians and Asian Americans, this interest was supported,” says Withers. “That is how he was able to start a group like Moving Forward. The young visionaries, like Dana, are the future. The entire university is excited to see the fruits of his work come to life.”
Finding the Rhythm of Multiculturalism
Burgess, who has taught dance at GW, as well as at Georgetown University and the Kirov Academy, has always wanted to start a dance company to fit this particular niche.
He graduated from the University of Mexico with a bachelor’s degree in University Studies in 1989, and spent the next two years perfecting his craft as a principal dancer at the Bill Evans/University of New Mexico Dance Company, and danced with Tim Wengerd & Co. In 1990 he moved to the East Coast and began dancing with the D.C. Contemporary Dance Theater, before enrolling in graduate school at GW in 1991.
Burgess says his dance experience has taught him that everyone in the company needs to be able to use each performance to express their thoughts and
feelings-especially people who are a minority in society.
“There is a lot of emotion that stems from being an immigrant, regardless if you are first generation or fourth,” says Burgess. “My goal is to give the member of this company a forum for expressing themselves.”
This idea translates into reality when creating a dance piece, says Stacy Topazian, assistant director of Moving Forward.
“When we choreograph a dance, we always pose a question regarding the theme to the dancers,” says Topazian, who met Burgess when they were both graduate students at GW. “The last piece was about taking a journey. So, we asked the dancers what they would take if they were to go away forever. We wanted to know what they would take and what they would leave behind.”
With this question in mind, the dancers each came up with their own personal ideas, she says. “Those thoughts were included in the dance, which enabled each dancer to invest personally in the piece. When they can do this, the dance becomes real to them. Instead of being characters they can’t identity with, as in more traditional ballets, our dancers are able to make personal statements. This helps the dancer to artistically engage the material.”
This personal attachment also makes for a better dance piece, Topazian says. “There is a piece of each dancer in the choreography. It not only enriches the piece, but it is the pleasure of being an artist.”
Topazian got involved in Moving Forward because of Burgess’ energy and a shared vision to make a difference in the lives of dancers in the Asian community. Once she got started, she was hooked. In 1991, Topazian helped Burgess launch the summer youth program in a classroom on the campus of GW Word of their venture traveled fast and, soon after that program was organized, Moving Forward got a call from the Kennedy Center. They offered Moving Forward space to rehearse for the summer.
“Not only was it such an honor to have the chance to practice at the Kennedy Center, it was also a very nice switch,” says Topazian. “They have air conditioning!”
The Kennedy Center also has a Cultural Passport Program, an educational program that offers professional arts training to young people in metropolitan Washington. In 1994, Moving Forward was invited to join in the program, which concludes with a free performance for the public.
Moving Forward performed their famous work, “Red Cans, White and Blue Bowls,” which attracted nearly 1,000 patrons of all cultural backgrounds. The performance was so popular that instead of dancing one show and having to turn people away, the dancers of Moving Forward volunteered to do two sold-out performances, back to back.
Carmen Tiglao, who is the assistant to the senior program director for local programs and community partnerships at the Kennedy Center, says her organization was eager to bring
Burgess and his company on board.
“At the Kennedy Center, we have supported Dana because he is working on an initiative we hope will blossom,” says Tiglao. “By working with Asian American youths, he is going in the right direction. Also, he is exposing the participants to different artistic influences of American and Asia. He is also recognizing other Asian American dancers, artists and choreographers and introducing his company, especially the youths in the summer program, to these talented people.
“Dana is really paving the way for more Asian American dancers to be recognized,” she says. “It’s a commitment that will be thankless at first, but hopefully he’ll discover many talented people. We all wish Dana well. He is a wonderful artist
as well as a wonderful human being.”
Meaning Behind the Motion
The imagery of Korea is alive during all of Burgess’ performances. Props play a large part in the performance. Masks are often used, as are suitcases and veils. These symbols represent assimilation to Burgess and his dancers.
“The program, ‘Passages from the Journey,’ is a stream of consciousness piece about the archetypal immigrant coming to America,” says Burgess. “It starts out as a group piece and then it goes to a duet between a man and woman who are recent immigrants. What is going on is that the man wants to stay behind and not learn English or assimilate. The woman, however, wants to continue with her growth. The man tries to stop her from going off in a different direction, but she wants to go. In the end she just walks away.”
Burgess says the idea for the dance came out of a discussion he had with a summer program student. The two were talking about being in America and having one parent who wanted to return home to Asia because he or she didn’t want to or couldn’t learn English and American customs. To make up for that, the other parent usually became the interpreter, and took care of the family.
“The student was wondering if this sort of situation would take place if the parents had not left their native country. Would one parent have become dominant, then?” asks Burgess. “This conflict reflects a change in tradition. Of course, not everyone in the audience will notice 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.”
Burgess’ own parents didn’t fit into this mold. Both are visual artists (his mother is a textile designer, his father is a painter and art historian), and have been supportive of each other, he says. “They were the rebels in the family,” he says. “So when I wanted to be an artists, too, they were very encouraging.”
But Burgess says that his parents didn’t expect him to choose dance as his art form. “As visual artists, they didn’t understand how your body could be the medium for your art form. Mostly, they were worried that I’d end up with a huge ego because I’d never be able to stand back from my own image. They wanted to know that as my ‘canvas’ aged, could I handle it?
“You know, I didn’t really understand what they were talking about when I was seventeen, but I knew at the time they were being very insightful. Now, I can see how they had a good point.”
What he understands today, however, is that no matter what your canvas, the goal of an artist is to raise the collective consciousness and to rid society of the prejudices that restrict minorities. It is essential to try to make a difference, he says. All the dances that Burgess choreographs aim for that goal.
“This is a time period in American history where there is a certain consciousness in evolution,” says Burgess. “People have to interact in order to meet the next millennium. Are we all going to fight to the death and be frustrated, or is there a more positive way through the arts for us all to be empowered?”
Reaching Out to Other Artists
Burgess believes in helping other artists-including musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists-to have their voices heard.
Christopher Nickels is a local composer who regularly writes music for Moving Forward. He wrote the score for dances by the summer youth program at the Kennedy Center. “Red Cans, White and Blue Bowls,” drew such a crowd that the dancers had to do two back-to-back shows.
“It was very exciting to perform live at the Kennedy Center,” says Nickels. “But when you work with Dana, it is usually pretty exciting. What is great about him is that I feet like he really appreciates my work and me. He’s also never demanding and gives me and other collaborators a lot of freedom. He’s not limiting at all.”
Another musician who has done work for Moving Forward is Tom Lyle. Burgess commissioned Lyle to work on the sound design for a dance performance called “Plantation,” which was about Burgess’ mother’s experience growing up in Hawaii on a pineapple plantation.
“Dana forms his work from the inside out,” says Lyle. “Being let into this world as an artist is quite a privilege. I hope to collaborate with him again,”
Lyle was also hired to write a score for a dance video project filmed in 1993 on the streets of Washington’s Chinatown. That video, “Urban Journeys,” was about the changing nature and the new diversity of Chinatown. Once a neighborhood for Chinese immigrants, the area now is home to many cultures. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., producer and filmmaker Linda Lewett filmed the project.
“The themes of the video showed the passing and changing of the culture in Chinatown,” says Lewett. “It was about stereotypes breaking down, about a neighborhood’s
changing face, and about the downhill slide that Chinatown has taken.”
The best part of making the nine-minute dance video, she says, was the unique way that Burgess approached the project.
“He didn’t want to do a traditional documentary,” says Lewett. “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.”
Throughout the video, the dancers moved through the streets. “There were twelve 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.”
Burgess has also worked on several projects with a Washington-area visual artist named HIRO. She did a mural painting called “Come into Being,” which stood behind the dancers while they danced at the University of the District of Columbia and the Marvin Center Theater in 1993. HIRO’s 5xlO-foot painting, inspired by Burgess’ choreography, was installed at Dance Place for the January performances.
“It’s always wonderful to work with Dana,” she says. “He has a spiritual vision and a philosophy about Asian Americans that has a lot of depth. His approach to the company helps to bridge the gap by seeking a real identity for Asian Americans.”
When it comes to working with other artists, including musicians, filmmakers and visual artists, Burgess says it is the only way for the arts to survive, and the only way to make a difference in the lives of the audiences who see his performances.
“I want the adult company to become a vehicle for ongoing collaborations for the Asian community and all artists in the area,” he says. “In the 1960s and 1970s there was such an interdisciplinary collaboration. I want to see a return to that, where creative people are working together to make D.C.‘s art community a special and unique place.”
As for the future, Burgess plans to continue to explore the issues that are important to the Korean and Asian immigrant populations in America.
“We often feel marginalized and invisible in terms of the way the American culture perceives us,” says HIRO, who is Asian American. “These works are contemporary American dance pieces, not Asian ethnic dance pieces. This distinction helps a great deal in terms of being identified in the evolution of American culture.”
Acculturation is a complicated issue, says Burgess.
“It is hard to know how to handle being an immigrant, whether you are first generation or fourth. What parts of your native culture do you keep? What parts do you throw away? How do you acculturate and not assimilate? I want Asians of all ages to know they don’t have to drop their cultural background, especially things that they are proud of.
“The point is we don’t have to assimilate and forget about our past just so we can survive here. We can bring our own perspectives to America. Getting that message across, through dance and through collaborating with other artists, is what this work is all about.”