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Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company

'Hyphen' and 'Island'

by Carmel Morgan

October 9, 2009 -- Dance Place, Washington, DC

October 9, 2009 marked the kickoff of the 17th anniversary season. of Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company (“DTSB&Co.”), a DC-based modern dance company.  This year’s season opener took place at Dance Place in Washington, DC, a dance studio/theater celebrating its 29th season.  Despite their longtime local ties, both DTSB&Co. and Dance Place continue to reach far beyond the DC area.  Dance Place brings dance programming from around the nation and the world to the nation’s capital, and DTSB&Co, known for its Asian-inspired works, tackles issues of international concern.     

DTSB&Co. premiered an important work, “Island,” that tells about the heartbreak of Angel Island, an immigration station off the San Francisco coast that enforced exclusionary laws that limited the number of Asians allowed entry into the United States.  In program notes, Dana Tai Soon Burgess, the company’s founding artistic director and choreographer and current chair of George Washington University’s Department of Theatre and Dance, explained that for him Angel Island “encapsulates the manifestation of societal fear against the unknown ‘other.’”  Although the Angel Island topic is one that was inspired by history, it is nonetheless timely.  “Island” addresses universal notions of “home, societal acceptance, individual hopes and dreams, and the ultimate potential of transcendence.”    

“Island” was as stirring as the real life stories it reflects.  The brilliant set, music, costumes, and lighting worked together to evoke a somber, searching mood appropriate for the work’s theme.  Sara Brown, director of theatre design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did a wonderful job weaving photos and calligraphy (including graffiti from Angel Island) into the visual multimedia design.  A large white square in the center of the stage formed an island of sorts.  Striking images and poems scrolled across the surface.  The dancers moved among the projections, sometimes sinking into waves that symbolized their journey.  DTSB&Co.’s resident sound designer, Laura McDonald, and costume designer, Judy Hansen, enhanced the overall design by incorporating period music and simple costumes in red and black.  Ben Levine added fine lighting design.  Each element suggested the aspirations, fears, and pain of the Chinese who arrived at Angel Island seeking a new life in America.        

Four immigrants, four guards, and one intriguing Motherland China figure (Shu-Chen Cuff) shared the stage.  The dancing delivered a wide range of emotions: desire, disappointment, degradation, and despair.  Given the nature of the work, it was perhaps surprising that all was not dark.  While some guards reacted violently to the intending immigrant detainees, other guards demonstrated concern.  Burgess’s skill as a choreographer came through in the smallest gestures.  There was amazing power in the simplest glance, incredible poignancy in a hand resting over a dancer’s heart or stretching up toward the sky.  In the work’s stunning final moments, the music turned upbeat and yet a death had occurred.  A white cloth (white is the color of death in many Asian cultures) covered dancer Connie Lin Fink.  Onto the cloth draped over Fink’s body appeared life-sized photos of people who presumably once inhabited Angel Island, bringing to mind not only the anonymous lives lost, whose faces we finally see, but also our own fate.  At the end of “Island,” Cuff, as Motherland China, sat at the foot of Fink’s body, hunched in grief, as others walked, in quiet footfalls, up through the audience and into the light.  “Island” teaches that we are all travelers.  In many ways we are all in the same boat, destined to face adversity and ultimately a departure.      

The evening’s second work, “Hyphen,” premiered in 2008.  It compliments “Island” well.  “Hyphen” involves less of an actual story.  Instead, it focuses on the inner turmoil of feeling like an outsider.  Utilizing videos from the 1960s and 1970s by Nam June Paik, a noted Korean-American artist, the work explores the emotional landscape of being a hyphenated American. 

In “Hyphen,” the dancers sometimes seemed cold and robotic.  However, their conflicted feelings were effectively conveyed through Burgess’s carefully choreographed angular movements and the work’s overall design.  Throughout “Hyphen” a struggle between fragments versus whole took place.  Dancers maneuvered around and carried oversized Asian props.  A television and a large screen at the back of the stage showed Paik’s videos.  The dancers mimicked gestures from the videos, including shielding their eyes from view and fiddling with invisible buttons.  The music, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, which seemed to have a heartbeat underlying it, was mixed with recorded text.  “I am American” said one voice, while other voices talked about culture and tradition.

Much of the movement played with weight and balance.  Dancers frequently pitched forward onto their hands, propelling a leg high into the air.  At other times, both legs unfurled behind them breakdance style as their hands gripped the floor.  It was pleasing to watch these elements repeated.  The dancers rarely touched.  When two women melted into each other, one’s hands placed on the other’s shoulders, her chest arched over the other’s back, forming an odd embrace, it was a surprise.  At the end of “Hyphen,” a dancer took a video camera that had been hidden inside a layered box and filmed the face of one of the dancers.  Her face suddenly replaced the face on the large screen.  “Hyphen” asked us to contemplate the makeup of identity and the tensions that accompany how we view ourselves, without regard to whether we consider ourselves hyphenated Americans.

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