Choreography as Portrayal: Dana Tai Soon Burgess at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery

Amy Henderson
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Gobsmacked by an age enthralled with the immediate, “tradition” has lost its footing. Institutions built as permanent bulwarks of common purpose have been fissured by an appetite for what is happening in the moment:  NOW is desirable because it is instantly accessible and gratifying. Yesterday is not on the social media radar, and building old walls higher won’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. It is the age of Elon Musk’s Tesla, not Henry Ford’s Model T.

Left: Choreographer, Dana Tai Soon Burgess, has been appointed the Smithsonian’s first choreographer in residence.

The technological urge that bound people together through earlier generations of mass media—the telegraph, movies, radio, and tv—has evolved today into a media-scape that thrives on individuals interacting virtually. But there is a growing indication that Facebook, Instagram, and texting don’t quench a basic human hunger for sharing experience in a real community—a movie theater, a sports arena, a concert hall, a museum.

Traditional institutions that depend on attracting and engaging the public are in flux today because new audiences have grown up controlling their own keyboard entertainment. Symphonies and opera companies are scrambling to create programs that entice younger audiences. In Miami Beach, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has created a New World Symphony orchestra that is housed in a stunning Frank Gehry hall and features surround sound, wall-to-wall video projections, and contemporary music. It is flourishing.

Right: Posed studio shot of dancers, Jeff Watts

Because museums have traditionally been repositories of the past rather than vanguards of the future, there has often been reluctance to embrace a dynamic new sensibility. The Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery accomplished a miraculous turn-around in 2015 when it revamped its quiet older identity and re-opened with a wildly-popular new exhibition aimed at attracting Millennial audiences.  Wonder offered the Selfie generation a prime opportunity to convey its cultural participation by sharing experiences on Facebook and Instagram.  Gone were the usual signs harrumphing “No Photographs,” and instead visitors were encouraged to pose themselves with the art and share their Instagram memories. Attendance soared, and while some traditionalists groused at the energy unleashed, exhibition curator Nicholas R. Bell asked, “Have we not clamored for spectacle for thousands of years? People like large things that overpower them in some way. I think it’s part of human nature.” (quoted in Katharine Schwab, “Art for Instagram’s Sake,” THE ATLANTIC, 2/17/17.

The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company in performance. All performance photos: Jeff Malet.

Museums have also embraced performance as a way to attract new audiences, and dance is now a permanent presence in many museums. The Metropolitan Museum has just appointed its first choreographer to be its 2017-18 artist in residence, and dance has a dedicated space at the Whitney’s downtown museum as well as a curator of performance. The Museum of Modern Art is also planning a permanent performance space. The motivation is to drive attendance: as one New York cultural critic explained, “Live performance encourages audiences to be more frequent visitors to your building” and brings in a more diverse audience. (See Michael Cooper, “Dance, Off the Wall, Coming Next Season to the Met Museum,” NYT 4/25/17; Jason Farago, “Viewers, the Dance Floor is Yours,” NYT, 3/30/17; and Hilarie M. Sheets, “Dance Finds a Home in Museums,” NYT, 1/22/15.)

At the National Portrait Gallery, choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess has been appointed the Smithsonian’s first choreographer in residence. He was in residence for the museum’s 2013-14 exhibition Dancing the Dream, and is now serving a three-year term that began in 2016. He has already choreographed three new works: “Foster Suite” for an exhibit of Alexander Gardner’s Civil War photographs, “Margin” for the Outwin 2016 portrait competition, and “After 1001 Nights” for “The Faces of Battle.” His troupe rehearses in gallery space during public hours–a fascinating exercise that gives museum visitors a unique glimpse into the creative frisson of a choreographed work actually taking shape. The final piece is performed in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard.

Burgess agrees with the curator of Wonder that people are attracted to on-site interaction with art. He believes that we are actually entering an era of  renaissance for dance: people are “intrigued by the visceral and ephemeral aspects of performance” and “are looking for a human experience.” Dance connects with people because it conveys “what it fundamentally is to be alive in the moment again.”  (DTSB to AH, 7/21/17)

Below: Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company performed the world premier of “After 1001 Nights” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s Kogod Courtyard on July 8, 2017 in Washington D.C. The psychological impact of war on soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan was the focus of the dance by choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess inspired by the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, “The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now.”  (Photo by Jeff Malet)

His troupe’s initial residency at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013 jolted Old School art curators who were aghast at the concept of dancers rehearsing in galleries full of art. It trumpeted an enormous shift for a museum accustomed to a highly traditional presentation of “significant” people. The traditionalists’ world reveled in quiet contemplation: major portraits were festooned behind velvet ropes to prevent visitors from getting too close, and hallways were lined with a static cavalcade of faces frozen in time. Corridors echoed with silent whispers of “Shhhhh….”

It did not seem like prime turf for a celebration of dance as America’s culture in motion, but attendance soared and major media saluted the troupe’s residency in 2013-14. When Kim Sajet became the museum’s director, she understood the importance of this new direction and signed the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Company to a three year residency, telling the Washington POST how this troupe “connected with our audience in a new way…Dana’s work brings to life stories and emotions and enriches the life of the museum.”  (Quoted in Sarah L. Kaufman, “Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Names First Resident choreographer,” Wash. POST 5/17/16)

Burgess is currently choreographing a new work in conjunction with the museum’s Sylvia Plath exhibit, and it will be performed at the Gallery in early December. In June 2018, the company will present a trilogy of Burgess’s Gallery-inspired works at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess sees his residency as an exploration of the American experience through dance. The museum has inspired him, and he now views choreography as “portrayal,” with the stage serving as a canvas and dancers as brushstrokes energizing a living portrait.

What is clear is that traditional institutions must adapt and absorb the currents of contemporary life; the most successful have figured out that “tradition” can be revised.  What matters is what novelist E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End:   “Only connect.”

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery

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