Sunday, January 29, 2012

2005 Tour to Latvia


In 2003 after a performance of our work Tracings which is about my family's history as plantation workers in Hawaii in the early 20th century, I was approached by a curator from the Latvian Opera house who was in the audience.  In 2005 the company toured to Riga.  It was our first time as a complete company tour in the Baltic States region.  We were the first contemporary company to perform in a beautiful black box space that was built into the Opera House complex.  We warmed up and rehearsed in a ballroom complete with chandeliers and a view of a snow covered square. 

Riga is a beautiful city because many of the original art nouveau buildings still exist there and were not destroyed during the WWII. We taught classes throughout the snowy city because modern dance was fairly new to Latvia at this time and people were hungry to see and understand what it is.  I have a great memory of teaching class at the Opera Ballet School where Baryshnikov originally trained.  We lay on the floor and I slid down to the mirrors as I demonstrated the movement combinations I kept tripping on the sharp incline because the studios were raked with the same angle as many of the older stages of European theaters.  

Riga is a city of Latvian culture at odds with new Russian values and aesthetics.  It has a rich artistic history and a burgeoning artistic potential. There is a deep melancholia and reserved aspect to its arts aesthetic which one can hear in many Baltic musical compositions today. I look forward to seeing more dance come from Latvia and the Baltic States in the future.  


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Our History with Peru

Peru....The company has a 10 year history with Peru.  I was first asked to go to Peru by the US State Department when the director of the National Ballet of Peru was in search of a contemporary choreographer.  The director, Olga Shimasaki is a gifted Japanese Peruvian dance artist.  The Japanese Peruvians are similar to the plantation Japanese and Koreans of Hawaii in that they immigrated to Peru to be agricultural workers at the turn of the last century.  They have since become very involved in the arts landscape of Peru from dance to the visual and plastic arts.  Peru is a great love of mine because I don't think there is any other country in the world where an Asian immigrant family's child could have become President.  Fujimori was a fascinating individual that represents the cultural openness and fluidity of the Peruvian psyche.

After my first travels to Peru when I set repertory work on the ballet, I returned to create Accoralada or corralled to a live orchestra.  It was my first experience with a full live orchestra, an experience which is almost unheard of anymore in dance in America due to cost limitations of the music union.  I learned so much and even collaborated with a Japanese Peruvian visual artist on the set design.  I was in a constant deja vu state in Lima because it felt so much like Santa Fe, NM where I grew up, also a colony of Spain, that I returned through two consecutive Fulbrights to make works for the San Marcos Ballet where I also taught modern dance.  It is directed by a wonderful ex-pat named Vera Stasny whom after a Fulbright stayed in Lima. My company came down each trip to tour all over Peru.  We have wonderful friends from Arequipa to Cuzco.  I felt so strongly about the incredible artist there that we assisted in sponsoring the first tour of the National Ballet to the Kennedy Center and have hosted many Peruvian dance artists to DC since.  I believe that the best American dance programs are reciprocal.  Friendships should be maintained for years to come and so I am very proud of the company's continued relations with the Peruvian community of dance.  The fundamental component of arts diplomacy is to create lasting friendship through which we can better understand a global perspective.  I can honestly say that I am still inspired by Peru and our repertory work Chino Latino about  Asian Latino immigration relationships is still one of my favorite works.  It demystifies how Asian and Latin cultures have historically worked together and is set to historic music scores from all over Latin and South America that reference Asian communities living in Latin counties.  No wonder my nickname as a child was "Chino"!

-- Dana

Friday, January 27, 2012

Meeting Artists Abroad

I decided to write about past international experiences and the impact of meeting artists abroad has had on my work and the way I view dance. This is my first installment. In 1999 I was invited to Pakistan to interact with dance artists and travel to the historic sites of Alexander the Great because I was working on a new dance for the Kennedy Center about Alexander's life. The current salt flats of Pakistan are the farthest reaches of Alexander's campaigns. The great artwork of Gandhara, now in the regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, are where the first images of the Buddha emerged. Prior to this time he was depicted by symbols, such as footprints or hands but never in full body form. The artisans left behind by Alexander depicted a Greek pantheon of gods at home and thus gave the Buddha physical form in Pakistan. These Buddhas are beautiful, cloaked in Greecian garb with Amerasian features. As a child I was so fascinated by them that when I reached the great Buddhist temple ruins of Pakistan I was overwhelmed.

In 1999 these sites were under attack from militant Muslims. The art was considered a threat. I remember visiting a chained up museum of Buddhist art that had been recently looted by the Taliban. In the dark, using a flashlight to look at the works that had survived with a security team in tow, these ancient works unfolded before me. Pakistan's people are so diverse being at the cross roads of the East and West for centuries. Faces in the Swat Valley are informed by multiple Semetic tribes, the Chinese, Europeans and more.

I visited 6 dance artists in Pakistan. I choose not to name them to protect them. At the time under strict Muslim law, dancing was illegal but not always enforced as so. Dancers survived under the radar. I met with dancers, watched their choreography, exchanged ideas on art and even thoughts on the effects of the Partician on Katak which is a often thought of as a Hindu based form. My final artist exchange occurred near the tribal areas with a talented Katak dancer. In her home was a man recovering from a gun shot wound. He had been shot for dancing. He had almost died. He appeared to be in his early twenties and was very thin and weak. We sat together and I was so moved by the fact that they danced with the full fear of being killed for practicing their art. They believed so wholeheartedly in dance that it was tantamount to their own physical safety. I will never forget these wonderful dancers. It has stayed with me for years. Now when I hear a dancer question their belief in their work, their funding, their lack of accolades, and a plethora of other woes, these are the dancers that come to mind. How lucky we are to be able to dance freely and express ourselves openly. We have the freedom to build dances with a sheer sense of openness and to communicate our thoughts and ideas through dance to others. May we all find a place to dance with freedom and remember what a gift freedom of expression is and strive to help our fellow artists.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Role of the Shaman

I have often been amazed by the role of the Shaman in all societies, their ability to see into anther world, enter it and return. I often talk to the dancers about this, the idea that if we believe in the world of the dance around us on stage and project it perfectly, then the audience will also be entranced by the journey and come along with us. It is a challenge which I so appreciate all of our dancers taking on. It is the intangible past a leg kick, past a leap which for me is most important. I just love our company and how wholeheartedly thoughtful they are. We have such a unique balance of perspectives from all over the world. It is this diversity that allows us to make up our own globally shared dance vocabulary for each show.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A fun 20th Anniversary Event - Please join us!

Please join us February 6, 2012 5:30-7:30 for a fabulous evening of wine tasting and small bites at Bistrot Lepic in Washington, DC and help us support Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co's 20th Anniversary Season. Details

A Lesson of Light

In our 20th Anniversary Season,  I want to send a heartfelt thank you out to all our dancers from the past who dedicated their time and dancing to the company as well as the many designers who have inspired me.  I was thinking today about the first time I understood stage light.  I was sitting with Jennifer Tipton and she said light is an entity with you on stage and if you project consciousness to an area of stage the audience will feel this.  This simple statement was so profound for me and guides me to this day when thinking about work as I create and coach it.  Her wise words continue to inform me as I collaborate with Laura McDonald from NASA and Sara Brown from MIT on visual projection environments that create worlds for the dancers to reside in.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Our 20th Anniversary in the Year of the Dragon

As we enter the year of the Dragon, I am reflecting on the last 20 years. As you know DTSB&Co celebrates a major milestone, not just for the company but also for the fields of dance, education and cultural equity. The company emerged out of a youth program in 1990. I was asked by the DC Mayor's Office to create a program that would support Asian American high school youth because the District had no arts programs for this community. It was a wonderful journey of learning, teaching and creating work. Fond memories include working with a Beijing Opera group and escalating from a small run down studio in the middle of the city to having the program enveloped for 3 years at the Kennedy Center. As the interest and need snowballed so did the talented dancers who came through the program as well as the new dancers who were attracted to the idea of an Asian American company. I launched Moving Forward:Contemporary Asian American Dance Co in 1992. This became our non-profit that eventually housed DTSB&Co, a branding name change a few years later. It was a very important moment for DC which had up until this point often looked at diversity as a black and white issue. The Latino community was given more visibility when the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood rioted and partially burned. Moving beyond the Asian American model minority myth has not been simple. The fact that Asian Americans, especially new American still struggle with language, social services representation and much more is often put to the side. I hope our work through dance has brought this issue to light.

The works that stand out for me over the last 2 decades that illuminate personal and historic displacement issues include: Tracings a recount of my own family's new American experiences in the Korean Hawaiian community of Oahu in the early 1900's, Island, the story of Chinese Immigrants trapped on Angel Island in midst of the Chinese Exclusionary Acts of the late 1800's, Hyphen which explores the reality of the hyphenated American identity with visuals by Nam June Paik, Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love, an autobiographic story about growing up as a Korean American in a Latino community and most recently Becoming American, the story of one of our dancers Katia Chupashko who is a Korean adoptee. My goal has always been to create works that are poetic, allow for empathy and understanding while presenting a strong message about inclusion. I am often asked how have you survived and continued to grow as an artist when the field of dance seems to be moving toward commercialism, pyrotechnics and a failing hierarchical management? I always respond by saying

"nurture your own unique aesthetic, don't follow the norm but follow your heart and never forget that one of the greatest goals of art is to build bridges of universal understanding. This path is not easy or simple but it is rewarding and heartfelt. If your art cannot transcend cultural boundaries then go back to the drawing board until someone in DC or Lima, NYC or Chennai, Beijing or Quito can understand the emotional core of your art."

My goal is to have each audience member feel that images in my work resonate with them personally and move them to be more empathetic to the larger human concepts of journey and the physical and emotional struggle to find a place to belong.