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Moving Forward Dance Company

At the post-performance reception following the Nov. 5 world premiere of Gandhara: East West Passages, a regular dancegoer looked around at the decidedly nonbohemian crowd and mused, “Who are all these people?” Science guys rubbed shoulders with ambassadors, art-gallery denizens, and Mayor Anthony Williams, who delivered an official proclamation making Nov. 5, 1999, “Moving Forward Contemporary Dance Company Day.” It’s rare that the Kennedy Center features an area artist in this way. But choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess has the kind of talent that leads people to describe him as a “Washington-based artist”—as opposed to a mere “local artist.”

Gandhara marks the second collaboration between Burgess and area sculptor John Dreyfuss. Their first work together, Helix, which opened the program, was a beautifully spare solo designed for the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s intimate Hemicycle Gallery. The new work, commissioned for the Kennedy Center’s much larger Terrace Theater, features 10 dancers and a lengthy historical narrative. Gandhara’s 21-foot-long centerpiece, which Dreyfuss created with a team of aerospace engineers from Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft and the SMX Corp., is made of high-tech composites that are both stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum.

The dance tells the story of Alexander the Great, from his boyhood to his conquest of the Gandhara region near the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Burgess traveled to the area to conduct research under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency and the Pakistani government, visiting ancient Buddhist sites usually closed to visitors. Gandhara is an ambitious undertaking, involving an unusual collaboration between art, science, and government—and, for the most part, it succeeds.

As a choreographer, Burgess excels at telling a story with economy and grace. A few well-defined gestures are all we need to follow the action of Gandhara. He portrays Alexander not as ruthless, greedy, and driven, but as a sensitive, reluctant leader with real remorse for his warmongering. Although you could argue with Burgess’ historical interpretation, he renders a compelling narrative. An exuberantly danced trio depicting a teenage Alexander (Burgess) playing with his friends is brusquely interrupted by his overbearing mother, Olympias, beautifully danced by Pamela Matthews. Eventually, her often-raised fist is replaced with Alexander’s own, as he assumes the role she has groomed him for since birth. In an affecting duet between Alexander and his loyal friend Hephaestion (J. Brandon O’Dell), male posturing with puffed-out chests gives way to reminiscences of childhood games and tender embraces.

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The piece’s choreography and music both combine aspects of West and East, underscoring the marriage of Greek and South Asian cultures that is central to Alexander’s story. Gestures and motifs begin to overlap as Alexander becomes more and more Easternized. Burgess juxtaposes the leaps, turns, high-leg extensions, and arabesques of Western dance with the percussive footwork and stylized mudras—elegant, precise hand gestures—that characterize Indian and Pakistani dance. The music, by Helen Hayes Award-winner David Maddox, serves as a very literal guide to Alexander’s transformation. A haunting soprano voice, drums, and flutes represent the West; sitars and tablas take over when we enter the East.

Han Feng’s elegant costumes, made of layers of sheer fabric, are the only colors in this dark landscape. The large, matte-black chariotlike sculpture is a versatile, efficient set piece. The dancers move inside and over it, push it across the stage, and turn it on its side. With its changing angles, the sculpture appears as a mountain overlooking future kingdoms, a childhood playground, or a joyless throne.

In Helix, Dreyfuss’ work serves a much more integral role. From the piece’s opening, the bold, white sculpture seems to be a breathing, animate presence. Lighting designer Jennifer Tipton’s use of shadow adds to this eerie impression, highlighting the abstract sculpture’s elongated curves and wide center opening.

Curled up against the sculpture’s base in a fetal position, Burgess gently moves away to become a free-floating form. Lying on his back, he slowly undulates, his limbs swimming in the air, then freezing into a position that recalls ancient petroglyphs, with his hands and feet flexed. The movements repeat, building into an evolutionary narrative. Over millions of years, Burgess’ amoebic life form becomes a fish, a bird, a biped.

Burgess dances with incredible focus, dressed only in sheer bronze pants, which allow you to focus on the suppleness of his back and the clean lines of his choreography. His precision as he shifts from fluid, lyrical forms to hard-edged, predatory gestures makes the air around him seem weighted and textured. He seems to be possessed by the creatures taking shape in his body. In Christopher Nickels’ understated score, extended tones give way to a rising heartbeat as the morphing animal becomes a man.

In the original, solo version of Helix, the man discovered his surroundings, attempted to dominate them, and finally reached a synthesis with the sculpture. In this revised duet, a different progression takes place. Burgess pushes against the statue, which rotates at its base; on the other side, a woman (Sarah Craft) emerges wearing a short wrapped skirt of the same fabric as Burgess’ pants and a flesh-colored bra (an understandable choice, though it would have been totally appropriate had Craft, as Burgess’ female counterpart, appeared shirtless). A petite sprite of a dancer, Craft moves with an innocent, sensual abandon. Despite her fine ability, the choreography becomes a bit too busy during her solo, losing some of the wonderful tension created earlier.

Burgess and Craft have a lovely symmetry when dancing together. It’s engaging to watch the two beings discover themselves through each other—pushing the statue together, mirroring each other’s gestures, clasping hands. But the piece’s Adam-and-Eve imagery is a bit much; when Burgess climbs into the statue’s open center to peer into the beyond, it’s only predictable that he’ll reach back and pull her up to join him. Even so, the dance’s final image, of their bodies cradled inside the sculpture’s aperture, has the quiet but intense beauty of a sleeping newborn. CP