Dana Tai Soon Burgess on 20 Years of Dance

The local choreographer and George Washington University professor talks about how Washington has shaped his approach to art.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Dana Tai Soon Burgess. Photograph by Mary Noble Ours.

For Dana Tai Soon Burgess, dance is a way to bring people together.

“All of humanity shares similar stories, whether it’s about love, loss, jealousy, or trying to find a sense of home,” the choreographer, 44, says. Over the past 15 years in his role as a cultural envoy to the State Department, Burgess, with his company, has traveled to countries including Egypt, Peru, and Mongolia, and says the experience has helped enhance his work: “Allowing me and the dancers to see the world has shown us how universal we all are.”

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company concludes its 20th-anniversary year this month with three performances at George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre September 21 through 23. The program, which Burgess calls a “mini retrospective,” includes four of the company’s signature works, including “Becoming American,” which tells the story of a Korean adoptee’s arrival in the US, and “Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love,” which is an autobiographical piece based on Burgess’s own experiences. “I tell stories through movement—through dance. All of these works are about finding a place to belong,” Burgess says.

Burgess was born and raised in Santa Fe but fell in love with Washington when he toured here as a dancer in his early twenties. “There’s so much art here on the regional, national, and international levels, and it’s a city that really feeds the soul and the mind,” he says. “Twenty years ago I had this need to create a company and to fill this a specific niche of work that I didn’t see being produced. I felt that was an aesthetic that was very important here.” Burgess is also chair of the Department of Theatre & Dance at GW, where he’s helped develop a new MFA program for dance.

Though Burgess’s company is firmly rooted in Washington, its dancers are truly international, hailing from six different countries and speaking six languages among them. In 2005, the company was awarded a Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence.

Burgess, who says the company’s mission is to explore American experiences, is looking forward to the company’s next decade. “People always ask me, ‘What’s your favorite work?,’ and I always say, ‘The next one,’” he says. “What I’ve learned over the past 20 years is to trust my gut with choreography. The wonderful thing about reaching 20 for a dance company—and not many of them do—is that you have a history and a structure in place that keeps supporting better and better art.”

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company celebrates its 20th anniversary with three performances at George Washington University’s Dorothy Marvin Betts Theatre, September 21 through 23. Tickets ($15 to $25) are available via the company’s website.