Dana Tai Soon Burgess

Dancer and Choreographer
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Thomas Wolf[

Music Credit: “NY-44” composed and performed by Kosta T; courtesy of Free Music Archive.

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Dana Tai Soon Burgess: I did work a lot as a—as a dancer, but what I found was that I was constantly drawn to trying to express stories which related to the concept of the other. And I think I always felt like an outsider trying to figure out well, where do I belong—you know, this like Korean American kid in Santa Fe in the ‘70s and ‘80s. So I really find that fascinating, like stories about new Americans, about different perspectives within the American terrain, in general.

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Jo Reed: That’s dancer and choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess is a critically acclaimed dancer and choreographer whose work reflects the vibrant and diverse American landscape. When Burgess began his dance company 25 years ago, he was one of a few Asian-American choreographers. And his dances very much spoke to the Amerasian experience. Synthesizing Eastern and Western techniques, he told stories of Korean farm workers in Hawaii, or Chinese immigrants arriving at Angel Island. His work struck a universal cord—and he’s now seen as one of the country’s leading choreographers—creating dances for the Smithsonian, the Asian Society, Lincoln Center and the United Nations. He’s performed extensively throughout the United States and has served as cultural ambassador for the State Department, traveling with his company to countries as far-flung as Cambodia, Peru, and Russia—teaching and creating dances for each place he visits. In 2015, in partnership with NASA, he created, “We Choose to Go to the Moon,” a dance inspired by space exploration. And in 2016, he became the first ever choreographer in residence at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Not bad for a kid from Santa Fe who didn’t start dancing until he was a teenager.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: I started dancing when I was 16 and 17. And prior to that I was a martial artist. And so I started martial arts when I was really young at about seven years old. And I think that the discipline that martial arts and dance share are quite similar.

Jo Reed: And they are?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: The whole issue of needing to have daily dedication to practice. And, also, that there’s a spiritual aspect to dance as well as martial arts that one can follow as well. So it’s very grounding and I love that.

Jo Reed: Your parents were visual artists.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Right.

Jo Reed: Tell me about your upbringing? Was it a colorful home?

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Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Sure. Both my parents were visual artists. My mom was a textile designer. And to this day she makes art every day, which I love. She makes collages now. And my father was a painter. So I grew up in Santa Fe in New Mexico. And it was a constant house of creativity. And what I loved about it was seeing the creative process unfold and seeing the challenges that they faced and how they overcame creative challenges as well as just artistic challenges, in a sense, too in terms of the field and what it took to be a successful artist. And I think that both of those lessons have served me very well.

Jo Reed: Santa Fe is a beautiful place.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: It is.

Jo Reed: And wonderful for artists. And you came east. When did that happen?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: I came east in the late ‘80s. And one of the reasons is that for modern dance, it’s fascinating, the east coast at that time was where you had to get to be a modern dancer. The west coast was more reserved for television and video work. Right? Being from the southwest was sort of an anomaly to try and find a path. But I was very, very lucky to have worked with a choreographer named Tim Wengerd and he was the soloist of Graham—Martha Graham company for many, many years. And just had a wonderful spirit about him and how he ran his company. So that was one of the first experiences in dance I had and that made me really want to continue dancing and seek out more work on the east coast. And I also went to the University of New Mexico that had a great dance program and I still stay very connected to them because it's amazing how dedicated and supportive those teachers are.

Jo Reed: Did you join Tim’s company right away?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: I did. And so I was 18, I believe, and joined his company and that was great. After I would leave my classes at college, I would go to rehearsals every night. And so it was wonderful to be immersed in learning about dancing technically because I was still learning so much then. And then being able to go to a creative process in the evenings and sort of apply everything that I was learning.

Jo Reed: You turned to choreography very early on. What was the draw?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: I grew up in Santa Fe. And I’m Korean American. And I grew up in a Latino community. And I went to bilingual schools. And my best friend was American Indian. And there were all of these different cultures that were converging. And this concept of how does everyone communicate became sort of forefront in my mind. And I think that dance does that so beautifully because it’s beyond written or spoken language but it’s really this fundamental kinesthetic language that we all understand. And that can convey all of the different issues that we share as humanity. And what I mean by that is that we have these shared stories about love and about loss and about happiness and about sadness. And it doesn’t matter what culture you come from, what socioeconomic class, those are shared stories that we understand through movement.

Jo Reed: You were 23 when you started your own dance company.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Was I?

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Was I 23? Oh, maybe I was.

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Jo Reed: Yeah.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: That is so funny.

Jo Reed: That’s quite a lot to bite off.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: That was. And probably if I had known what it takes now I wouldn’t have done it. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Well, that’s the joy of being 23.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: It totally is. Yeah.

Jo Reed: And the company that you formed really reflects not just your own heritage but that sense of difference that you found in New Mexico and that’s certainly part of the American story.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Right. You know I find that when I look around the room in rehearsal that somehow each dancer is curated into the company because of their backgrounds, because of what they bring to rehearsal. And we have dancers with all different backgrounds from also being Amerasian such as myself. We have dancers who are South American. We have dancers who are African American, Filipina. And it’s this wonderful representation of our American terrain, I think, now, our American landscape. And that’s important. I think that dance companies need to reflect the current social context in which they’re creating work.

Jo Reed: And when you started out it was really one of the few Amerasian dance companies out there.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Yeah. It’s interesting. We had a whole sort of evolution in a sense. When I first started the dance company, all of our dancers were Asian American. And this is in, you know, the early ‘90s. And Washington DC was a very different city. There was very little representation in the arts for Asian Americans. And I had a whole community of artist friends that wanted to have a voice. And I think that we came together as dancers and me as a choreographer and also visual artists who are making our set designs, video artists and created something very, very special at that time. And as the years went by I became more and more interested in expanding that vision and becoming more inclusive. And I think that there was an evolution in a sense of the company in order to reflect where we are in America today.

Jo Reed: Well, that would make sense that it’s your 25th year, congratulations.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Right. Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Jo Reed: That you would evolve as a dancer, a choreographer, and a company.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Right.

Jo Reed: But back then when you were starting off, was there a problem finding an audience? Or did you find people were like oh my God at last?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: I think it was a little bit of both. Because I think the way I grew up with my parents being visual artists was I’ve always been connected to the visual arts community in some capacity. And that has always created this cross germination of audience and interest and dialog around the work. And one thing that a lot of people were looking for especially young people, again, was this representation of having an Asian-American presence, that there could be a dance company that was made up of Asian Americans whose repertory was based on the Asian American diaspora and the experience itself. So people were very interested. What was difficult about it was that in terms of looking at the terrain of DC, the funding of that concept was not always easy because the way that multiculturalism was looked at in the early ‘90s was very different. DC was looked at as a black and white city. And I think that we’ve really evolved to understand that there’s this large Latino community. There’s a large Asian-American community. There’s a large African community. Our understanding of cultural equity has definitely become sensitized in a very positive way.

Jo Reed: What was your first big break would you say for the company?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: It was interesting. When people ask me how did you plan the company? How did it become successful? What was the strategic plan? I didn’t really have one. I just knew that I was making dances. That I was dedicated to doing that. And one night after performing on a showcase an individual came back stage and he said, “I’m from the Kennedy Center. I’m going to make sure that you get into the Kennedy Center.” And I thought I don't know who this person is, right? I thought okay that’s so nice. And I just thought, isn’t that great? And sure enough I got a call from—his name was Derek Gordon. He was the VP of Education for the Kennedy Center at the time. I got a call from his assistant the next day to meet. And so we met and came up with a residency plan which was really helpful. It allowed me to work on an education program in dance for several years geared towards Asian-American youth. And, also, be presenting the dance company. And then that evolved into a relationship with one of the dance programmers, and international programmers who then supported several seasons of ours.

Jo Reed: And how did this allow you to develop your choreographic language?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: The next thing that happened, I think, that was quite incredible was that I started to work with an artist named John Dreyfus here in Washington DC on the interface between dance and sculpture. And I contacted a lighting designer named Jennifer Tipton, and she came to see my work and she said, “I’ll work with you.” And it was kind of amazing because Jennifer is really like my dream lighting designer because, of course, she’s a MacArthur genius. She worked with Baryshnikov. She’s worked with Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, et cetera. And I learned so many wonderful lessons from her about looking at light as another entity or another dancer on stage. So that was a huge break for me not just in terms of how the work itself turned out, and it was very well received, but also in terms of at a very important time having more information to think about how to design dances and how to have an interplay between the visual arts as well as the production design arts of light.

Jo Reed: When you build a dance, do you start with a story? Do you start with a movement? How do you start?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: I usually start with a theme. I have some idea that I’m interested in researching. And then I read up on that. I’ll interview people that are specialists in that area. I try and just garner as much information as possible in a research process. And then I go into the studio and I start working on phrases with the dancers. And those phrases really turn into their own language, so a phrase becomes a sentence and then a series of phrases becomes almost like the chapter of a book. And then from there I try and figure out what are the peaks and valleys of the work that I want to create and how to express those. So it’s very much like writing a book in a sense. It’s that sort of structure that I look at, how to draw the audience in, how to engage them.

Jo Reed: And how much input do you take from the dancers?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: I rely on the dancers to really work improvisationally a lot at the beginning of the process. And I love that. And I think that what’s so nice about having a dance company is that everyone is a unique mover. And with all of their backgrounds they’re all unique individuals and so instead of me coming in and setting every single movement that multiplies the ability to see movement quickly and effectively. And then as we're crafting the work, our senior dancers and our rehearsal directors—I’ll sit down with them and I’ll ask them does this internally feel like we're going in the right direction? Does it externally look like its conveying what I’m thinking it is conveying in my mind? So it’s nice to have that check and balance system for sure.

Jo Reed: You have been many times cultural ambassador.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Yes. Mm-Hm.

Jo Reed: What did that experience mean for you and what did it mean for the company?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: That’s another serendipitous thing that happened in my career. After one of our Kennedy Center performances, a representative from the state department came back stage and said, you know, “We would love to enroll you as one of our touring artists and companies.” And that sort of set us on this international journey that’s lasted a couple of decades now that we’re really thankful about. I think that it has inherently opened my eyes and is probably part of the more expansive vision that we have within the company now because it allowed me to travel to different countries and immerse in different cultures and then really understand how we’re all so similar within our life processes, within what we all want and hope to achieve with our lives.

Jo Reed: I think cultural diplomacy is so central and yet it’s undervalued, or just not seen or recognized.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: It’s interesting when we travel for the state department we are envoys for the United States. And it’s wonderful to meet with artists, engage with artists and collaborate overseas because we can have this artistic dialog that builds a friendship through the work. And I think that diplomacy at its core is building long term friendships. And so the use of art for that makes complete sense.

Jo Reed: You stopped dancing about a decade ago, a little less.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Probably over a decade ago.

Jo Reed: Did that change the way you approached dance or thought about dance? Or how dance figured inside you?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Yeah. Interestingly, it gave me a much clearer perspective as a choreographer because I am now able to be completely outside of the work. And I have a different relationship to it where I’m looking at the dancers in the studio often almost as a canvas and they’re almost like brushstrokes. And so I can see how the painting of that choreography is evolving. And I think what’s confusing when you’re dancing and choreographing is that the medium is your body and the medium is other people’s bodies. So there’s a little bit of a confusion of trying to understand where you fit in unless you have a body double on stage all of the time. So I think that actually it has strengthened my choreographic work. And I’m really happy to be the choreographer that is outside trying to make every dancer look the best they possibly can. I feel that’s a big part of my responsibility.

Jo Reed: You also take your responsibility to the community very seriously. And you work with various communities and create choreography for them. Can you tell me how that process works?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Sure. In terms of the work that I create here in Washington that then goes out and tours I think that the best way that I work with different communities is by finding an interest in their stories. And then trying to choreograph works that represent journeys or stories from within those communities. So right now, I'm working on a new dance called “After 1001 Nights,” which premieres in July at the National Portrait Gallery, and it’s based on an exhibition which is there now entitled, “The Face of Battle: 9/11 to Now.” And it specifically focuses on veteran experiences and posttraumatic stress disorder. So I’ve been doing a lot of research speaking to veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq and working in the studio informed by those conversations that I’ve been having.

Jo Reed: Tell me about your collaboration with NASA.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Oh, sure. I created a work entitled, “We Choose to Go to the Moon,” which is part of, of course, Kennedy’s epic speech where he challenged America to get to the moon within ten years. And, of course, America rose up and we got there sooner than that. And this work is a collaboration with NASA because we were allowed to go through all of the image libraries of the Hubble Telescope and utilize images of the universe. Right? And so we, also, were able to meet with space scientists and planetary scientists and astrophysicists who worked for NASA and interview them about their relationship to the cosmos. And at that time, my father actually passed away and he was part of the Kennedy generation, that generation that really had a dream about America. And so the work sort of took this fascinating angle that was the relationship between spirituality and the unknown and what space science is researching now. So I added in different interviews to the sound score. And those interviews even included a medicine woman from Santa Fe who talked about the relationship of American Indians to the stars and origin and death myths as well. So it was fascinating to find out how much we don’t know. And how that mystery in terms of space science propels everyone forward.

Jo Reed: Did it make you rethink the relationship between art and science?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: It definitely did. What I started to realize, especially by speaking to the astrophysicists was that the creative process is replicated in science, meaning that people research a concept and are studying a concept from afar. And they gather all of this information but it’s really that creative leap of faith that leads to discovery. And without understanding creativity, then we can’t make new discovery. So the power of art itself is very important and completely fundamental to us moving forward within the sciences.

Jo Reed: And you are the first ever choreographer in residence at the Smithsonian—the National Portrait Gallery, so congratulations.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Oh thank you. Yeah, I just love being there.

Jo Reed: And tell me what you do there.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Well, it’s really a dream come true. What I do is I meet with the curators and the historians and find out what exhibitions are coming to the National Portrait Gallery. And then I’m able to choose different exhibitions in which to create a new work about. And so recently some of the works that I have choreographed—one was based on the Alexander Gardner photographs from the 1860s, which was something that I never would have done, but when I saw the photographs I thought I have to do this. It’s just so fascinating. And another work that I created was called “Homage,” and it was based on the “Dancing the Dream” exhibition which was the first exhibition on American dance that the Smithsonian ever had. And I created actually a couple of dances based on the exhibition. Now I’m creating, “After 1001 Nights,” the dance I was mentioning.

Jo Reed: And you have open rehearsals there.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Yes, which is totally great. What I love is getting to the open rehearsals a little early when the museum is still closed and just wandering through the museum because it’s sort of like Night at the Museum, that movie where you can just walk through by yourself. But what’s great is that we actually are enlivening the exhibitions because I think that a lot of times people think of a museum and it’s a place where you’re not supposed to talk and it’s a place where you’re not supposed to touch and it’s a place where you’re not supposed to ask questions. But—

Jo Reed: A little bit like church.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: A little bit like church. That’s very true. What’s so neat about having open rehearsals there is that people walk through, they can sit for hours and watch the creative process and understand that a portrait can be the inspiration to another artist in a different medium. So I like to think of it as we’re bringing life back to the museum. So whenever people ask what do you do there? I say I work in a living museum. It’s a place where, you know, we’re alive. You know, we’re interpreting art. We’re expressing how the creative process works. And then the individuals come back to the show and they just love seeing that they were part of a moment of seeing creation happen and then they come to a show and they can understand better what the process is.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Process is so important.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Oh, it really is.

Jo Reed: It’s actually my favorite part.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Mine too.

Jo Reed: We talked about philosophically how the company and the choreography has changed over the years. I’m not sure I even have the words for this but have the actual steps, the gestures you use, how much have they changed? In the beginning, it really combined a lot from the east, a lot from the west. Is your choreography still part of that? Or has it moved in other directions as well?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: I think that fundamentally there is still a thread of similarity that you can find moving through it. There’s an esthetic that has evolved. And part of that esthetic has to do with time, like the unraveling of time in a sense. And I think that often when we look at eastern dance forms and western dance forms, time is slightly different how it unravels. And so I love exploring both of those things.

Jo Reed: Can you say more about that? How is it a little bit different?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: In certain esthetics, time can unfold a little more slowly or a little more, I think, poetically at least that’s how it feels for me, in certain eastern dance forms. And in American modern dance, I think for decades now there’s been this interest in pyrotechnics. And although our dancer are extremely well trained and they do sometimes do pyrotechnics it’s not the focus of what I like to choreograph. I’m really more interested in how to unfold a story and how to show that through a vocabulary of dance which has certain sometimes a little bit of martial arts in it. It has modern dance. It has some ballet. It has gesture. It’s an esthetic that is more geared towards storytelling from the way that I see a story unfolding. You know, it’s very subjective, I think, for a choreographer.

Jo Reed: You make room for stillness.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Oh yeah. I think stillness is so important. And I really believe in the concept of tableaus and of archetypes. That when I think about choreographing on stage I think about the audiences’ experience of seeing sort of the macrocosm of the stage and then having it move and move and move and move and suddenly stop into this tiny image that zeroes the audience in so it sort of pulls them into this almost—looking into a microscope. And right when that occurs I like the stage to suddenly ripple again. And it dissipates and disappears and something else comes into perspective. So I like this folding and unfolding quality of movement.

Jo Reed: You’re also a teacher. You’ve taught across the country. You’ve taught internationally. Now you’re at GW, George Washington University. What is it that you try to impart to your students?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Well, in speaking to them about their choreography, I often tell a student now you’re at a place to unlearn everything you’ve learned. And to try and figure out what is your core movement style because it’s the individuals with a unique esthetic, not those that are drawn to mimicking that are the most successful. I think that we’re drawn as audience members to unique movement forms. And also to honesty and a sense of integrity in how that choreography is presented to the audience. I also tell students that they shouldn’t be drawn to thinking that there’s a quick fix to being successful in the field. But I really feel that longevity and continuing to focus on the work for a long period of time is what creates a choreographer and creates a name in the field and then creates success. There really is no shortcut to it.

Jo Reed: 25 years ago, did you ever imagine you would be on the path that you’re on?

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Absolutely not. You know, I grew up, as I was saying, in Santa Fe, New Mexico in a very small town. And so this path or journey through dance was just an abstraction. There weren’t really any examples. You know, I knew like a handful of professional dancers. But I didn’t quite understand the field. And so I’m just very thankful every day that I’m still able to make dances and that I can affect people’s lives or open up their hearts and minds to a subject matter through movement.

Jo Reed: Okay. Dana, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Oh, thank you.

Jo Reed: That was great.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Thank you.

Jo Reed: No, not at all.

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That’s dancer and choreographer, Dana Tai Soon Burgess. He begins rehearsals for “After 1001 Nights” on June 10 at the National Portrait Gallery here in DC—they are open to the public, go check ‘em out.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Creating a cultural mosaic of dance