Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company
Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery / American Art Museum
October 28, 2016
by George Jackson
© 2016 by George Jackson
Police terminology is often applied to the art of portraiture – capturing truths that are elusive in life and arresting transient moments. That is the traditional view, but not the only one any more. Wander through the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibit “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today” and you will see images that hide a subject’s personality by presenting the individual’s features as a mask. Of course, that too is a sort of truth. Other portraits, even some executed in conventional media such as paint and canvas or pencil and paper, change as you approach them or transform the longer you look. Dance is adept at marking all sorts of alterations, at displaying the innumerable types of impermanence afflicting people, and it manages this along a time line. Burgess, whose latest choreography is based on the Portrait Gallery’s exhibit, seems aware of the options and chose to pursue some of them. “Margin” contains probing portraiture but also, quite pointedly, uses bodies to be the picture’s frame.
Two very different women are the choreographer’s major subjects. One of them, the darker figure, seems helpless in the space that surrounds her. She hugs the ground, she fears that frame, that fence of seven dancers she must face even when turned away. She is a migrant. The other woman, the pale one, seems to own the space, propelling herself about it on a bicycle. On encountering the migrant her response is anger. Through the course of “Margin”, the women’s behaviors and feelings change. The migrant stands up. The bike rider dismounts. Their actions and interactions proceed, evolving rather individually. Burgess uses both behavioral motion of a functional sort and more florid expressive dance to portray these two people singly and in terms of each other.
There are other pairs in this piece – two same-sex duos and a racially-mixed couple. For a while the migrant and the bike owner join in a trio with a man. Romantic actions keep these people clusters so busy that the participants can’t be bothered projecting the state of their souls. They hug and twirl one another, and they help each other stretch (pulled arabesques). When separated, the danger of over exertion (hand stands) tempts these lovers and they implode, folding onto the floor. Down moments, though, are transient. The pace of the action is kept pulsing by a musical montage which includes sounds from a boxing match and “God Bless America”.
Burgess did not assemble a catalog of diversity but showed people of dissimilar appearance whose behavior varied. In two instances he touched on the evolution of a human being’s understanding. The amount of space, time (34 minutes) and motion allotted to Joan Ayap (the migrant), Sarah Halzack (bike owner) and the seven other dancers didn’t crowd or rush them but provided a margin that enabled viewers to recognize a reasonable portrait of America today.
Photos: All dancers of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, and all photos by Jeff Malet.