Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company
National Portrait Gallery & Smithsonian American Art Museum
April 19, 2014
by George Jackson
copyright 2014 by George Jackson
Mood plays always matter in Burgess’s dances. This time, though, a single piece of music factored in major ways. “Suite Hebraic” for violin and piano - by the 20th Century, Swiss/American composer Ernest Bloch -- functions as propulsive force, as formal mold for shaping phrases as well as larger sections, and as emotional terrain. Another source, according to the choreographer, is an image of American modern dance matriarch Doris Humphrey. She is shown as a sort of sibyl, a figure crouching in darkness but peering pale faced into time future, in a 1938 photograph by Barbara Morgan that is part of the Portrait Gallery’s current “Dancing the Dream” exhibit. With these inspirations, Burgess has made a rich, rather somber, remarkably unified piece of choreography about the opposite impulses of attraction and withdrawal.
The dancers enter, one after another. Ritual is implied, yet so is personal response in the way the ten individuals behave. Each spaces and times herself or himself with distinct care. They are dressed in black, the women wearing gowns with a flowing skirt of meshing and the men clad in a hybrid suit that’s part ballroom tuxedo and part balletic top-and-tights. White linings modify the formality of the black costuming. Tensions in the music sort and subdivide the dancers into several nodes, several foci of action. Attraction and separation become the principal forces of interaction. The movement is dense with balletic articulations, balances and lifts. Yet this vocabulary is used sculpturally, for its weight and shape rather than for its dynamics and flow. Burgess does not capitulate to the classical tradition but, after all, remains true to a modern dance sensibility.
The encounters that are at the heart of “Confluence” begin with a long duet for a couple, Sarah Halzack and Kelly Moss Southall. There is quiet drama in their coming together, in their exploration of being together, in their hesitancy and in their flight from one another. Other encounters are more ceremonial, especially one in which a central female is circled by five figures while another four stand guard at a distance. The most intimate withdrawals are by individuals into positions of sleep. Burgess skillfully manipulates the size, dynamics and overlaps of his units of action. At the end, one figure reaches out to touch a sleeper. Is an awakening Burgess’s intent?
The tensions and plaints in Bloch’s music suit the alternation of outreach and withdrawal in “Confluence”. Interestingly, other Washington choreographers such as Choo San Goh and Pola Nirenska have used Bloch. He seems more formal both as a modernist and as a traditionalist than his 20th Century contemporaries in composition.