Tonight marks the 20th anniversary of Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company – a modern dance company that tells the intimate but universal story of immigrants and hyphenated Americans coming to terms with their identity and place in American culture.
Burgess is a Korean-American who’s stripped down style and nuanced details set him apart from most modern dance choreographers.
In the spirit of creativity, I spoke with Burgess on the phone about his creative process and what lessons other artists can take away from his body of work.
Transcend language and create your own
Dance is as much a language as French and Swahili. Across the globe, cultures have their own set of movements that convey emotion.
Hula dancers use `ami honua to refer to the world or the earth.
Thai dances have108 distinct dance steps with specific meanings.
Burgess and other dance choreographers have their own unique language that threads through their tapestry of work. It’s those small gestures and turns that set Martha Graham apart from Vaslav Nijinsky.
This holds true for all art forms – writing turns of phrases and voicing; the thickness and fluidity of lines in drawing; the volume and pace of a movement in concertos.
It’s all about getting into the details.
Burgess’s signatures include distorting time, the angle and positioning of shoulders, and small hand gestures. Put together, these movements give depth to a performance with an impressionist portrait of traditional Asian dances.
Looking deep into your own art work, asking yourself why you chose one direction over another, and building on that new language is essential to discovering your own voice.
Immerse yourself in a story
Creating a new story or coming up with a new idea can be a daunting task. I know that I feel paralyzed or rushed to get my idea produced. But it’s important to step back first, and as Burgess recommends, immerse yourself in a story.
Becoming part of that story will help you define what the most emotionally impactful points are and where you relate the most.
“I always try to find an entry point for the audience…something universal and approachable,” said Burgess.
Researching can be daunting when you have so much ground to cover, so zero in on a particular experience – see where that takes you. Once you’ve got that narrative in your mind, observe your own feelings and thoughts during the process to help you define what your vision is.
Don’t be afraid of failure or editing
When choreographing a new work, Burgess throws out whole phrases or movements that don’t work.
“I don’t get stuck because I’m not afraid of editing,” said Burgess.
Indeed, when writing especially, it’s difficult for some to even get enough words on the page because of constant self-editing [I’m doing it right now!]. Instead of evaluating everything that comes out of your head, just put it down somewhere like a sketchbook or index card so you can work through the process of creating a whole work. You may or may not use those ideas but have faith that the end piece will be much better for it.
Attend tonight’s anniversary show and watch some of the Company’s most memorable pieces:
April 5-6, 2012 8:00pm
Dorothy Betts Marvin Center
800 21st St. NW
Photo by Zain Shah