Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Metro Weekly’s August 25, 2022 edition. Access it in the magazine here.
A choreographer-in-residence at a visual art museum might at first seem a counterintuitive stretch, but Dana Tai Soon Burgess “felt like it immediately made sense.”
In 2016, Burgess, the D.C.-based artistic director of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, was named the first-ever choreographer-in-residence at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. “It made sense for me…to make sure that the dancers had an opportunity to get out of the dance studio,” he says.
Young dancers in training, Burgess notes, spend countless hours “just stuck in a box that’s surrounded by mirrors. So you’re just kind of judging your own body over and over and over. And you don’t get much information from the outside world because it’s so disciplined.”
The company’s residency at the Portrait Gallery, however, focuses the dancers’ energy outside their proverbial box.
“To have this new environment that introduces the visual arts and all of the socio-political history around those portraits, around those great paintings and sculptures, enlivens a young artist themselves, their ability to perform and just their ability to understand the world around them, and how all these different stories interconnect that we’re trying to portray.”
Known to many as the “Diplomat of Dance,” Burgess has been telling stories worldwide through his eponymous modern and contemporary dance ensemble for 30 seasons. He also has served for over two decades as a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, a role that complements his work with the Portrait Gallery.
That collaboration, for which the 54-year-old creates new works inspired by the museum’s exhibitions, has produced notable live performances and multimedia projects, like a moving Social Justice Leaders Video series.
In the brief, beautifully-shot videos, directed by Burgess, the company interprets the lives and stories of cultural and historical pioneers like Marian Anderson, George Takei, and Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
Earlier this year, inspired by a painting in the museum’s Outwin 2022 portrait competition — Rigoberto A. Gonzalez’s arresting Refugees Crossing the Border Wall into South Texas — Burgess created a modern dance work called El Muro/The Wall.
Performed by 11 company dancers, plus live musicians led by former Pink Martini percussionist Martín Zarzar, the work premiered in May inside the museum’s courtyard.
“We just felt after COVID, coming back to perform for the first time, we wanted to have more of an all-around celebration feel and still bring a social message to the dance,” says Burgess, who will debut a new work at the Portrait Gallery in October, Surroundings: A Tribute to Maya Lin to coincide with the museum’s exhibit Maya Lin: One Life, opening at the end of September.
Burgess strongly encourages anyone interested in the dance performance to also check out the exhibition.
“They can walk it within half an hour, and just really be able to contextualize a little bit more about who she is and what she’s done in her life and what her trajectory is,” he says. “Then maybe the abstraction of the work, they can kind of fill in themselves with their new knowledge.”
Such sage advice for seeking out context behind an artist’s work might also suit readers of Burgess’ uplifting new memoir, Chino and the Dance of the Butterfly, set for release in September from the University of New Mexico Press.
In the deeply personal autobiography, Burgess chronicles his childhood growing up gay and outcast in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A son of two visual artists, he would find his art in dance, and follow a serendipitous path to performing and creating on the world’s greatest stages.
This fall, his company will return to Santa Fe, where it will tour three different pieces, one inspired by the space race under President Kennedy, El Muro, and Surroundings.
Meanwhile, Burgess the author can celebrate his book release with scheduled appearances around the country and all over his hometown. “So essentially, I have a lot of book signings scheduled through the spring,” he says. “Which is really exciting!”
METRO WEEKLY: I just watched the performance of El Muro/The Wall, which I thought was really beautiful storytelling. Of all the different pieces in the Portrait Gallery, what was it about that painting, Refugees Crossing the Border Wall into South Texas, that really inspired you?
DANA TAI SOON BURGESS: This amazing painting by Rigoberto Gonzalez in the Outwin Exhibition. It is of individuals who are crossing at the Southern border. What I love about his painting style is it has sort of this Neo-Baroque look to it, where there’s a treatment where you understand that these individuals are larger than just the few people that are painted into it.
But they’re telling this larger story of exodus, of trying to find a place that is safe to call home. There is kind of a religious component to it, because in the painting, this young mother is carrying a baby and it kind of has this flight from Egypt feel to it that’s biblical, which is about saving the concept of hope in a sense, or saving the concept of a savior. So I was very inspired by that.
Growing up in New Mexico, what people don’t know sometimes is that there are a lot of cities in our Southern border of New Mexico, which are just 10 minutes away from the border, from the wall itself, and that a lot of our economy depends on individuals that are here seeking asylum, and it always has. We have very strong connections with that Southern border.
Of course, so much of our culture is derived from cultures from the South, Central and South America. And that’s why there are certain characters in the piece — like Death is in the piece, and she’s very present. Even within this dance, there are these symbols of marigolds, and marigolds — if you grow up here in Santa Fe or you’re from Mexico or other parts of Central and South America — are very much associated with the spirits of dead family members. During Day of the Dead, you cover these altars or ofrendas with marigolds, because they lead the dead spirits back to find you for the night so you can visit with them. So there’s a lot of symbolism built into the piece.
MW: Something I was struck by watching the piece is that the dancers were required not only to move, but to really emote. Is it hard to find dancers who can be compelling at both?
BURGESS: Everyone in the company comes from a very diverse background and I really look for that in dancers. They are trained in modern dance and ballet, but they usually have one other folkloric dance specialty. Also, everyone has an interesting story that comes from our American tapestry of who we are as Americans now. We have a Filipino American dancer, a Chilean American dancer, a Peruvian American dancer, a Korean American dancer. Everybody’s coming from these different perspectives. I think that helps everyone emote together because we just find what the shared stories of trying to belong are. In America, sometimes that transition to “becoming American” or finding a sense of place can be daunting and difficult to find your sense of community. I think the dance company functions as a family unto its own, which is really nice. And I think that helps them perform better.
MW: Something else I felt about the performance is that you can see in the production value and in the commitment of all the artists, the Smithsonian’s commitment to putting up this kind of work. You were named in 2016 the choreographer-in-residence at The National Portrait Gallery. How did that come about?
BURGESS: I had created work for different museums for, gosh, about a decade prior, like the Natural History Museum had an exhibition on the Korean American Centennial in 2003 that I did a work for. I had done work for the Asian Art Museum, which formerly was the Sackler Museum years ago. Then in 2014, the first exhibition on the history of American dance occurred and it was called Dancing the Dream. I was called by a historian, her name is Amy Henderson, to come down and look at the exhibit because they were using a photo of me in the exhibit. That was so nice of her. I didn’t know they were using it, so I went down and she said, “Would you be interested in doing something associated with the exhibit? We have all these images of dance, but we don’t have dance itself.” So I said, “Oh, that’d be great. If you could build into one of the exhibition rooms a dance floor, then I’ll come into residence and build dances and we can be the exhibit and people can come and watch us.” And so that’s what happened.
It was so successful that at the end of it, the director of the museum, Kim Sajet, said, “I think we can create a position here at the Smithsonian for you.” That’s how it all occurred. But it took multiple years. My father was a visual artist and my mom’s a visual artist still, and so I just feel really comfortable being surrounded by visual art. So to be at a museum is just perfect, whether it’s at a Smithsonian museum or a private museum. We’ve been at the Kreeger Museum. We’ve been at lots of different museums. That’s what I love to do is create dances that explore this confluence between visual art and dance.
MW: Visiting the gallery myself, I found it a really joyful experience to take in all the different stories. What strikes you when you pass through the exhibits?
BURGESS: I really love searching the collection for stories that might not be obvious at first, because sometimes what happens within the canon of American history, and the way it’s presented within museum structures, is that there are a lot of stories of, and it sounds funny, but kind of Caucasian middle-aged men, or older men. What I feel a large part of my job is to illuminate the diversity of our story in America. And then enliven that canon within the museum structure.
What’s so cool about Kim Sajet, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, is that’s really what she’s been focused on since she got there — to make sure that the collection itself is reflective of where we are in America today, and of the cultural conversations that we need to be and are engaged in currently in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
MW: Your tenure at the gallery so far spans two very different administrations, very different moments in Washington, D.C. From where you sit, has it been any different? Has the agenda changed at all or evolved?
BURGESS: I think that for the museum, I just keep focusing on the art. For Washington, D.C., itself, the terrain of Washington ebbs and flows in a fascinating way every four years. When I think about the President Obama years, when he invited me to speak and to have my company perform at the White House, and that relationship, or having been at Vice President Biden’s home years ago, that’s a very different terrain than what happened under the Trump years, where art went by the wayside. The understanding that it could bridge lots of different perspectives and lots of different ideas and give voice to people that didn’t have enough voice in America all just disappeared.
Now under President Biden, I feel that the arts in the economy are returning again and that there is this sense of hope within the artistic community, that things are going to recharge again. But in a way, I look at the country as coming out of a post-traumatic stress. Everybody’s in post-traumatic stress from so many things, from the Trump administration, from the coronavirus. So I think that’s why we need dance more than ever, as a healing art that brings our community together, a community that’s been so torn apart in the last few years.
MW: They sent me your book, Chino and the Dance of the Butterfly — yesterday, so I haven’t read the whole thing. Surprise.
BURGESS: I think it just hit the warehouse. Literally, I got a call the other day and it’s starting to be distributed. So that’s exciting.
MW: That is exciting. So why this moment for a memoir?
BURGESS: Oh, gosh, that’s a great question. What happened during the Great Quieting time period is I was so used to moving and seeing people every single day, and going to the studio, and all of a sudden I was teaching our company on Zoom from my living room, as our dogs ran through and as I’m kicking potted plants, you know what I mean? It was a whole different experience where everything sort of shut down.
I have always been a very kind of driven, workaholic sort of person that’s always thinking about movement and dance. I thought, “I have to do something.” I had to understand how did I get to that moment in time? Because the thing about always being busy is you never have to think about how you got there, because you’re always not living in the moment and not considering the past too much, but you’re always moving on to the next project. So, it was just one moment in time where I thought, “Oh, I think I need to understand at midlife how I got here and what’s going on.” Because I’m always considering other people’s stories, and I realized I had kind of neglected my own story and how it fit into the curation of other people’s stories. So, I literally wrote a couple chapters of a memoir and I sent it to University of New Mexico Press. I said, “Would this be of interest?” And they wrote back within a week and said, “We love this idea. We don’t have anything like this, and let’s do it.”
So they contracted me to write a memoir, and it was a great process because I would get up every morning at like 5 a.m., because I’m a big early morning person, and just write from 5 until 8:30 a.m., and just do that every day. It really helped me consider my life, consider what was important to me in my life, consider who were the important people along my journey and how I could honor them or talk about them in there.
Then, while I was writing the memoir, just in a very serendipitous way — because everything, I feel like, in my life has been about serendipity — I got an email from Routledge Publishing in England and they asked if I would edit and contribute to a new dance history book. So I said, “Oh, why not?” So, I have another book coming out. It’s called Milestones in Dance History.
That one’s very much about diverse perspectives in dance, but it’s different than the memoir and in a very different, more technical voice. That comes out in September too. But what I’m really focused on is the memoir. I really enjoyed it. I decided to focus on specific events that had occurred in my life and kind of curate those events around being gay, around being Asian American, around growing up in New Mexico and around the concept of serendipity as an artist, and how growing up in a visual arts family ended up somehow placing me in a museum. So that’s really what it’s about.
MW: Were there any portions of the book that were difficult to write or relive?
BURGESS: I think there were a lot of difficult moments, and then I think it allowed me to heal from moments that I was sort of running from my whole life. When we moved to Santa Fe, I was very, very young, and there were just a lot of major bullies at the schools I went to. It was very difficult during my generation to come out. And to be out in a very closed Catholic community, was also super difficult.
So, my childhood was really about being the outsider and constantly trying to figure out where I fit. Being able to revisit those moments helped me understand why I feel so engaged and dedicated to finding a way to portray other individuals’ voices who feel like outsiders in American society, and to do it so that people can become empathetic to what their journey has been.
I realized a lot about the schism between my generation and what happened with, for example, one of my really important mentors, Tim Wangard, who died of AIDS. Coming of age during that time period, I realized, also defined certain fears within my adult life, too. So it was great to go back and think about just growing up in a small community and then trying to figure out what it means to be an adult gay man in an urban community now, who’s happily married [to husband Jameson Freeman].
MW: You wrote in the book about how “Chino” was a name that was foisted upon you by bullies, but then you later grew to embrace it, especially through your Spanish-speaking friends from whom you felt it was a term of endearment. So is the title about you reclaiming that word, declaring yourself Chino?
BURGESS: Yeah. It’s so funny. Many of my best friends still call me Chino, and I think it was just about trying to understand different cultural perspectives, and to also just kind of love oneself and love the journey of what I’ve been through. Instead of feeling like, “Oh, this is a negative label,” realizing, actually, this is a very positive name that I can claim. One of the reasons that, of course, it’s The Dance of the Butterfly, is that where I grew up here in Santa Fe, a mariposa is the name of someone who’s gay, like the beautiful butterflies that fly around. So I thought it had to have a butterfly or mariposa in the title. It had to have Chino and it had to have dance, and then all of a sudden there’s the title.
MW: You also write about something that I’m sure a lot of queer people will relate to — about at a young age becoming really self-conscious about your mannerisms.
MW: Being too feminine, and as you write, trying to actually correct it.
BURGESS: Yeah. Like mask it.
MW: At what point did you just stop judging yourself for how masculine or feminine you are?
BURGESS: I think that was an ongoing challenge of the idea of masking, around the idea of safety, because in the neighborhood I grew up in, it was better to not be seen than to stand out. So that masking sometimes was about survival. That went away, and the idea of feeling comfortable with myself and my mannerisms and body and everything through this process of dance, of learning dance, of being able to choreograph, finding a dancing community that was really supportive, that had a large LGBTQ community in it, I think it took a long time. That’s something that was always difficult for me.
MW: You also write about the fact that both of your parents were artists. Your mother’s still making art. They were educators as well. First, because you say that she’s your muse, I’m wondering how’s your mom doing? And second, what did you learn from your parents about sustaining an artist’s life?
BURGESS: I think what I learned in terms of sustainability from my parents was a concept of how to be a survivor, that if I would just focus on the art, somehow it would all work out. And it has, because they really put all of their life’s journey into making art.
Although it was difficult financially for them at times, and for the family, it ultimately all worked out. And just watching that process — the ups and downs, the acceptance, the rejection of being an artist — allowed me to be tougher in a sense. It also educated me about art history. It gave me a vocabulary that went beyond dance that’s been really, really helpful. So there were lots of things like that. And my mom’s doing really well. In fact, I think the epilogue of the book, we sit on this little bench where my computer is and we look out at her little garden here. So that’s funny you ask. Thanks for asking.
MW: Something else from the book, and something I relate to personally, is that you talk about loving and being inspired by old Hollywood musicals. Specifically, you mentioned Busby Berkeley. Do you still watch and love old Hollywood musicals? Do you have any favorites?
BURGESS: When I was a kid, there weren’t cell phones and there wasn’t the internet and there weren’t computers. All we had was the black-and-white TV. So I would just wait for anything that had dancing culture on it. For some reason, I loved that. That’s even before I danced.
I loved all those old musicals and I think I still do. 42nd Street is great. There are just so many classic musicals that are these old black-and-whites, especially, that I love, because they were designed for people to be able to escape into a beatific world, and escape their reality for an hour or two. I think they really do that. I had an opportunity a few years ago to create a work at the Smithsonian called Homage. I have some references to different musicals in that. My work doesn’t usually reference that sort of work, because I do modern and contemporary dance, but that particular work I was able to, and it was really fun.
MW: In your dance life, how did you arrive at modern and contemporary, as opposed to some other style?
BURGESS: My parents put me in martial arts classes or karate classes when I was a kid. I had wanted to be in a piano class because, oh, my gosh, I wanted to be like Liberace. I’d seen him on TV. And I was like, “Oh, my god, this man’s awesome. The way he dresses.” And it was just hilarious to me. So I was like, “Oh, I want to play the piano.”
But we didn’t have enough money for a piano or anything. So, my parents took me to a martial arts dojo and I became a competitive martial arts kid. Then out of that, I learned how to move and had this facility to just move and learn how to move. So when I went to the University of New Mexico, I thought, “Okay, my life’s been really tough financially. I think I’m going to try and be an accountant.” So I went to school to be an accountant. Who knows why? I thought to myself, “I’m never going to be an artist. That’s too hard a journey.” I went to my first few classes and immediately found out that I have a problem with numbers, so it was never going to work for me.
I just started ditching classes and wandering around the university, and I wandered past the dance building at University of New Mexico. It was just blaring with music. So I snuck inside and watched dance classes, and snuck in and started taking dance classes until the teacher caught me and said, “You’re doing really well in these classes, but I’m going to have to kick you out unless you sign up.” So that’s how I started, when I was 18, which is really, really late.
But because I had had all this martial arts training, it just was so easy to do ballet, to do modern. It was another serendipitous moment where I was just wandering around looking for a sign from the universe. In fact, I write about it in the book. You’ll get a kick out of it, I think, because it was a very funny, weird, odd moment. But that’s why it’s so fun to be touring back to the University of New Mexico this year in November — it’s kind of a little bit of a homecoming. So that’s fun, to keep those ties going, and to know that for me, when dance companies would come through New Mexico, it was so far and few between and so important in my formation, that I’m so happy that we can tour here now to meet young people and talk to them about what the field is like.
MW: You talked about how nonstop you were, except for that quiet moment. I thought it was funny since you said in the book that the meaning of your Korean name, Tai Soon, is “the one who brings serenity to the family.”
BURGESS: [Laughs.] Totally.
MW: I feel like that might be a misnomer for you. Or is there some way that you have brought serenity?
BURGESS: I think I probably am the peacekeeper in my family. I always have had that. That’s true. So I probably live up to that. But it is sort of a funny oxymoron, because I’m always moving around and doing something. Yeah. So that is funny. I had never thought of that. But the name is a little odd. But what people do say is, even when I’m working on a ton of things, I still seem calm. So that’s always nice. Maybe that’s from my name, that calm demeanor.
MW: I noticed that the George Takei video in the Social Justice Leaders video series is dedicated to your late friend Dedi Liem Gunawan. You started a fund in his memory. What are you hoping to do through the Dedi Liem Gunawan Hickory Legacy Fund?
BURGESS: When I was in my early 20s, and Dedi was maybe in his late teens, he might have been 19 when we first met, we became best friends because there were so few Asian Americans in the gay community that were out and about as much.
It was interesting because now our community is much more mixed within the club scene. But back then, there was a big separation between specific clubs and who was allowed to be there or would feel comfortable there. When we would go out, we’d have to go out with all our Asian and Asian American friends as a little group. There wasn’t as much mixing of cultures like there is now. So, we became friends and ended up being best friends for decades.
Last year, unfortunately, he passed away suddenly in his sleep. So his husband, Dr. Wayne Hickory, and I were speaking and he said he’d love to work with me to see if we could create a fund in his name, because Dedi was also just such a big supporter of the dance company. He was on the board for decades. So, we wanted to do something that would honor him, but also that would keep his influence and presence with the company going forever. So, we created a fund and people can still give to the fund on our website, and that fund supports innovation within the work we’re doing.
For instance, with El Muro, that fund allowed us to add live music. We wouldn’t necessarily have added the whole band, but it allowed us to do that. I don’t know if you’ve listened to Slant Podcast, but it’s my podcast also, it interviews Asian American artists, from David Henry Hwang, who did M. Butterfly, to Kevin Stea, who was… Do you remember Madonna’s “Vogue?” He’s my old high school friend. So I recently interviewed him.
MW: I’m a Truth or Dare fiend, so I’m aware of all those dancers’ names.
BURGESS: I interviewed Kevin recently. We hadn’t talked in a long time, but the podcast is also supported in large part by that fund. Essentially during this last year-and-a-half, two years, when there was a resurgence of Asian American violence, I just needed to do something. So, I started reaching out to a lot of my Asian American friends and I said, “I would like to do a podcast. Would you like to be a guest?” Just to get all of our stories out there so people understand how diverse the community is, and also people understand the impact that that resurgence had on them. Also, what are some of the historic contexts that have led up to that? It didn’t happen overnight. So that’s what the podcast is focused on, and I’m really happy about it. It’s free. Also, our performances are free, and funds like the Dedi Liem Gunawan Hickory Fund allow us to do free programming.
MW: On the subject of the rise in violence against Asians and Asian Americans, and what led us to this point, what are some of the theories that you’re arriving at?
BURGESS: Well, unfortunately, America has a long history of systemic racism against Asians and Asian Americans. You can really start seeing that, especially when backlash starts to occur for new Americans coming from China during the 1840s Gold Rush, during the building of the railroad, and by the late 1890s, Congress enacts exclusionary laws, meaning that if you are of Chinese or Asian ancestry, you’re not allowed to come into America. Then those sort of build through a series of laws that have to do with not being able to own land, for instance, in America, not being able to be an agriculturalist.
Then that continues and not being able to marry someone who’s of another race, for instance. So people in the ’50s are having to look for which state allows them to marry, for instance. Then in the ’40s, of course, we have Executive Order 9066, which interns Japanese Americans into these camps, into desolate areas of America until the end of the war, and they lose all their land.
One thing that’s interesting about these exclusionary laws is that, for example, an Asian American or someone of Asian ancestry couldn’t own land in New Mexico until the 2000s. Even though a lot of these laws weren’t enforced, they were still in the books into the early 2000s, which is sort of horrifying.
Then you think about the whole history of yellow-face in Hollywood, and that lack of role models who are Asian and Asian American and the whole masking of that. So, I think of a special damage to our Asian American history would be this interwar time period, which is from World War I to World War II, where you have the exoticization of the Asian body early on, and then you have it move into what we call the Yellow Peril or the fear of Asians, of Asia, from the East. It’s this weird pendulum that never finds normalcy.
That, I think, is a huge part of the whole impact. Then you have this whole model minority issue, which is created by a sociologist, I believe, in the 1950s, this concept of model minority, which was just used as a wedge between the Asian American community and the African American community in order to try and get them to fight with one another, because it’s not real. When you think of all of the difficulties new Americans have coming from Asia in terms of language, in terms of healthcare, et cetera, it really isn’t what one would think a model minority would be facing. So there’s a long systemic history and it comes from so many different perspectives that have essentially taken away the voices of Asian Americans and taken away people’s understanding of the diversity of the community as well.
MW: Looking back through the magazine, I had looked to see when we talked to you, and your first profile was in 2003.
BURGESS: That is so wild. I can’t believe it was that long ago. Time just flies.
MW: Time does fly. Especially these last few years when the world is completely out of control. So what have these past 19 years meant for your art?
BURGESS: These last 19, almost 20 years, it’s been one project after another that has helped me grow as an artist, and just feel more confident to be able to go into the studio and experiment, to be a better director, to be able to get a young dancer looking their best onstage. Because 20 years ago I would’ve still been onstage and dancing myself, but directing the company. What I’ve learned over those 20 years, after I retired [from dancing], was just how stressful and split that is, when you’re trying to direct and at the same time you’ve got to perform and you’re trying to choreograph, not just on others, but on yourself.
So what’s really nice is for me to sit back in the studio, still be surrounded by wonderful, dedicated young dancers, and try and figure out what are the strengths of each of them, how to best portray that onstage, and how to help them understand as I understand now that dance is a field of mentorship.
You can’t learn dance from a video or a DVD or anything. You have to work with a choreographer or a teacher, and then that information just sort of flows to the next person. We’re just all part of a continuum.
Maybe what I’ve really learned the most is that I’m thankful to be part of this larger continuum that allows dance to be such an important part of the human experience, because every single culture around the world dances, and it’s our fundamental language. Before we had written language, spoken language, we just danced it out. And we still do.
I think the neat universality of movement is that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what your religious background is, what your primary language is: when you see movement, you understand it.
Chino and the Dance of the Butterfly is available wherever books are sold in stores and online.
To view the DTSBDC Social Justice Leaders video series, visit www.dtsbdc.org/social_justice_video_series.
To view DTSBDC’s performance of El Muro/The Wall, visit www.npg.si.edu/performance.
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