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This weekend, the Washington-based contemporary dance ensemble Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company is performing at Dance Place. Founder and choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess, a Korean-American who grew up in New Mexico, has long mined his Asian heritage and personal history in works that virtually always focus on identity struggles, including pieces like Chino Latino and Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love; the latter was first shown at Dance Place last year and will be performed again this weekend.
Burgess spoke with Arts Desk about the piece premiering tonight, Becoming American, and how it fits right in with the themes that have consistently driven him to make art.
Washington City Paper: Tell me a little bit about the new piece, Becoming American, and why you were drawn to the concept.
Dana Tai Soon Burgess: This piece is really based on one of our dancers, Katia Chupashko. She’s a Korean adoptee who came over when she was two-and-a-half from an orphanage in Busan, [Korea]. I was really fascinated by her story. I’ve always been interested in stories about situations that require people to find a new beginning or actualize their life somehow.
WCP: What do you mean by that?
DTSB: For a long time now, since around ‘99, I’ve realized that so many of my works have been about looking at personal stories that allow individuals to overcome some kind of almost emotionally traumatic experience, and to move from being an outsider in a community to some kind of empowerment or acceptance.
I’m also interested in what I call “micro-cultures.” What I mean is that the individual story is so important now; we’re not talking about large lumps of culture in America in the same way anymore. We used to be talking about the African American community or the Latino community, but within a micro-community, it’s about individuals like me that grew up Amerasian in a Catholic community: cultures within cultures. That’s what this work is about as well, a culture within a culture, a displaced individual.
WCP: Do you think exploring concepts of personal identity will always engage you, or will you eventually shift to something different—more abstract, for example?
DTSB: That’s probably what all my work will be about. I think choreographers are interested in telling a specific story over and over again, and their work is an effort to clarify and illuminate it to audiences. I think humanity only has very specific stories; it has universal stories of love, of acceptance, of betrayal. If you look at every single story that’s been written, there are these universal themes, and it’s how you approach them that becomes the way of the artist.
WCP: Didn’t you just get married? And do you think that’ll affect how you approach your work?
DTSB: No, I just got engaged! I don’t think it’ll affect the art I make. It makes things easier and more thought-filled, in terms of coming home and having artistic conversations. I grew up in a household full of artists and have always missed that, so it’s wonderful to be with someone who understands the creative process, who understands that ebb and flow of an artist.
Shows are at Dance Place on Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m., and Sunday night at 7 p.m. $22.
Photo by Zain Shah