By Michael Wade Simpson | For The New Mexican
Dana Tai Soon Burgess is a Korean American choreographer. His Korean given name, Tai Soon, means “great serenity of the family,” and while he has lived in Washington, D.C., for 35 years and worked globally, he was raised in Santa Fe, a place he still calls home.
“It’s the place I still feel most understood,” he says. As an artist who has made a career exploring the stories of “hyphenated people” — those like himself of mixed ethnicity — he finds the layers of cultures of New Mexico bring him comfort. “There is something ancient that resonates for me.”
His education reflects his roots: He attended Agua Fría and Gonzales elementary schools, Alameda Junior High, Santa Fe High School, and the University of New Mexico. He left New Mexico to pursue a career in dance and landed in Washington, D.C. At age 55 and after decades in the big city, his resume includes not just a renowned dance company but also a faculty position at George Washington University, the first-ever role as artist-in-residence for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, and travel to five continents as a dance ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
But now, Burgess’s career is coming full circle: He has returned to New Mexico to become the first Teaching Artist in Residence for Santa Fe’s National Dance Institute.
In December, his dance card will be full. He’ll be setting works on advanced dance students in Santa Fe December 2-9. The rehearsal period will include a “Meet the Artist” event, film screening, performance by members of his dance company, community dance class, choreography workshop, and open rehearsals.
“Dance is a field of mentorship,” he says. “You can’t learn it on your phone.”
Later, he’ll return for performances in February, the end-of-year NDI event in May, and a residency at the NDI Albuquerque headquarters in July, which will include a public performance by his entire company.
Close to home
Burgess grew up in the Casa Solana neighborhood with a brother and two working artist parents who sometimes struggled to pay the rent. His mother, Anna Kang, was raised in Hawaii, the daughter of immigrant farm workers who toiled at the pineapple plantations. His mother still lives in Santa Fe and continues to make art in her 90s. His father, Joseph James Burgess Jr., was a Yale graduate who also descended from immigrants — German and Irish settlers in upstate New York. He attended “Oriental Studies” classes in college and was recruited to be a U.S. intelligence officer. He declined, deciding instead to pursue painting and had a long career as an artist and gallery owner. He died in 2014.
“My dad was great,” Burgess says. “One day, I was walking home from elementary school with a friend. We stopped in front of his house, and his grandfather was sitting on the porch. ‘Hey Chino,’ the grandfather said [using the nickname Burgess endured all through childhood — the Spanish word for ‘Chinese’]. ‘You remind me of men who used to live here.’ When I got home, I asked my father why he had spoken to me that way. Without missing a beat, he explained Executive Order 9066 [the decree after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1942, forcing Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to “evacuate” their homes and live in “relocation centers”]. He told me our house was on land where thousands of Japanese prisoners had once been incarcerated.
“Santa Fe, before the whole Ralph Lauren thing [fashion designer Lauren’s “Santa Fe style” gave the city international buzz in the 1980s] was a small Western town. There was a hippie enclave, and artists like my parents could still afford to live there. In school, they talked about ‘Tres Visiones,’ the perspectives that Native, Hispanic, and Caucasian culture could offer us. I went to bilingual schools. The Asian American community was very small, but we were tightknit. Most of the kids went to the dojo [karate school] behind Project Tibet on Canyon Road. That’s probably an art gallery now.”
As a cultural envoy for the State Department, Burgess worked with dancers and dance companies in such far-flung spots as Peru, Egypt, Cambodia, and in the tribal lands of the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan, shortly before the Taliban took over. There he met a young man, a Kathak dancer, who had just been shot for dancing publicly. “That experience helped encapsulate for me both the fragility and power of dance,” he says.
“When I travel to another country, it’s a two-way exchange. I ask them, in advance, how I can be of service, whether that’s answering administrative questions, fundraising techniques, or choreographing a dance for their National Ballet. In Cambodia, my company collaborated with a traditional group to create an evening-length program. The main goal is to create long-lasting friendships, which has been achieved. That’s what diplomacy is.”
The goal for his work for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is to animate history, to create dances inspired by the very two-dimensional world of art within the walls of the museum. Previously a repository of portraits of “the wealthy, the pale, and the male,” according to director Kim Sajet, the gallery is on a new mission to diversify and to depict those whose stories and images have previously been left out.
One of the dances Burgess created was a tribute to Marian Anderson, the renowned African American opera singer who in 1939 was denied the opportunity to sing for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., by the Daughters of the American Revolution. With the help of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, Anderson performed a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday that year. The integrated crowd was said to include more than 75,000 people, and millions more heard the broadcast on the radio. Anderson was the first African American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and she sang in Washington again in the 1960s during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “She was a racial justice icon,” Burgess says. “The dance features some of the Brahms music which was her favorite.”
Dance the story
El Muro (The Wall), the dance that Burgess will set on NDI students this December, was based on a painting, a finalist at the gallery’s Outwin Portrait Contest, called Refugees Crossing the Border Wall into South Texas (2020) by Rigoberto A. González. It is a contemporary take on the much-painted Biblical story of the infant Christ’s flight to Egypt, which, in this case, features a ladder, a family with a baby, and Donald Trump’s signature wall between Mexico and the U.S. The dance features contemporary Latin music and includes a black-veiled figure of death and an immigrant who doesn’t survive the trip across the border.
“Dana is a remarkable storyteller,” says Liz Salganek, NDI artistic director. “His dances help people feel and connect to the most empathetic parts of themselves. Many of the families of our dancers have had similar experiences to the people depicted in the painting. We think NDI should be part of the conversation around diversity. We always want to offer different perspectives.”
Incorporating resident teachers at NDI is part of that offering.
“The idea for the residency is to expose our dance students, our community, even our teachers and staff, to the work and process of a renowned choreographer,” Salganek adds. “We worked with Dana in 2019. He made a piece based on the legend of La Llorona. It was such a vibrant drama, and our kids grew leaps and bounds in developing a dance with him. He talks about growing up here, and his own hyphenated ethnicity. Our students can relate to him. They love working with him.”
And Burgess benefits by working with the students too.
“Children are always watching,” Burgess says. “They are constantly trying to make sense of the world. So am I. We’re living in crazy times. I’m living in Washington, D.C., where things are so polarized. I want to present works that bring people together. For young people, access to social media means they’re not only inundated with information, they’re seeking facts and honesty when so much of what they see is not true.
“When I teach a piece like El Muro, which touches on a hot topic, I ask everyone how they feel about the subject. We don’t judge individuals for their beliefs,” he says. “We want to understand everyone’s side. NDI’s spring show is called Dream Big!, about important dreamers in history. It’s a universal need to seek a home where you can feel safe. Where you can dream.”