May 7, 2009
Who is Dana Tai Soon Burgess? He is an internationally recognized choreographer. He’s a contemporary dance performer. He’s the son of an Irish-Scottish American father from upstate New York and a Korean-American mother from Hawaii. He’s the director of Washington DC’s first Asian-American dance company.
His analysis of identity through movement will kickoff the Smithsonian’s celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month. Burgess and his troupe will perform “Dancing Through The Asian American Experience,” at the American Art Museum’s McEvoy Auditorium. The event will take place tomorrow, May 8 at 6 p.m.
Burgess took a quick rehearsal break to speak with me about the upcoming performance and his thoughtful take on identity.
You’re performing three original works, “Chino Latino,” “Hyphen” and “Island.” What kind of story does each tell?
All three of them are about the Asian American experience — just from different perspectives.
“Chino Latino” is based on the presence of Asians in Latin and South America for over a century. When Asian communities move to the Untied States, they are often closely aligned to Latino communities.
“Hyphen” integrates the work of video artist Nam June Paik. It has to do with Asian Americans and other hyphenated Americans—African Americans, Irish Americans—and that place in between those two worlds where identity resides.
“Island” is a work in progress. It’s based historically on Angel Island, which was the immigration station on the west coast where Chinese, Koreans and South Asians predominantly came through. When they arrived, they were held and questioned before they were either allowed into the United States or sent back.
Why do you choose to use video art, like Nam June Paik’s, as part of your work?
It’s another layer of imaging that I’m interested in. How can our contemporary technology add to the emotional landscape? I’m interesting in telling emotional stories about humanity and about relationships.
As you perform these stories of multiple identities, who are you performing as?
A lot of art is generated out of the subconscious and makes its way to the conscious realm. The personas are all characters within myself, characters that come from growing up and from friends.
What should audiences pay attention to when they see your work?
We work very hard on a unique fusion of Eastern and Western movement. They’ll see a lot of gestures combined with larger modern dance movements. I hope that the pieces will resonate with them so that they ponder their own life experiences questioning their identity.
What are your thoughts on May being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month?
I think that it’s wonderful to have a celebration in May. The Asian-American diaspora experience is so varied. Many different Asian Americans have had a profound effect on the American landscape. I hope people celebrating with us in May will continue celebrating with us throughout the year.
Check out a segment from “Hyphen” below:
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.