Dana Tai Soon Burgess is a world-renowned American choreographer and dancer whose work has earned him numerous accolades and international acclaim. He is known for his unique style that blends traditional Asian dance forms with contemporary modern dance seamlessly. Burgess has created over 90 choreographic works in his career and has collaborated with various artists across different mediums, including music, film, and visual arts. Burgess is also a native New Mexican who continues to have a love for his home state. In this article, we will delve into the life and career of this talented artist and explore the impact this work has had on the dance world.
Where did your love of dance come from?
My parents were both visual artists in Santa Fe, where I grew up. I was a restless child, a mover, and I believe this got channeled into choreography as I watched the creative process of my parents. The canvas became a stage somehow. I often think about this in my role as the first choreographer in residence for the Smithsonian. My focus on the confluence of dance and the visual arts stems from my earliest memories.
Who were your mentors in your training?
Interestingly, I have several mentors. One is my original karate instructor Makio Nishida, who I trained with as a child in Santa Fe. He was my "Mr. Miiyagi" from The Karate Kid. He taught me discipline and how to train the body. Next is Tim Wengerd, who directed the first dance company I danced for. He was an esteemed soloist for the Martha Graham Dance Company. He was gay, generous of spirit, and unfortunately died of AIDS too young. It was heartbreaking. I will always acknowledge my UNM professors, Judith Bennahum and Jennifer Predock-Linnel, who taught me my skills - both ballet and modern dance. I think about their wisdom in the dance studio to this day. Finally, I grew up in a neighborhood built over the Japanese Internment Camp of Santa Fe. There, the first Asian American choreographer, Michio Ito, would spend his last days in America before being repatriated to Japan. Somehow Ito's life seems embedded in me, perhaps due to place and land. I studied his technique and learned his signature solos as a young adult from his original dancers. Although I never met him in person - he died before I was born - the beauty of his work and the reality of his wrongful incarceration because he was Asian American still haunt me.
What is it about dance that drives you?
It's complicated. Dance is a calling. I dream about dances. I think about new dances daily. It is the one focus in life I know.
What was your mission when you developed your dance company?
When I first started choreographing, I wanted to tell the diverse stories of Americans forgotten in the canon of dance history - stories of social justice icons continue to inspire my work. My recent works include tributes to George Takei, Marian Anderson, and Justin Lance Black.
What is your process when choreographing your numbers?
I start by researching stories and subjects I'm interested in. I then enter the dance studio and conduct structured movement improvisations that lead to a movement vocabulary. Once I have the movement vocabulary, I combine it with music and begin to mold it until a dance is formed.
How much does your heritage play into your choreography?
My background and my family's history created the lens through which I create. My dances are inspired by my heritage. Perhaps this is true for all choreographers. We can't escape our own experiences, even those from multiple generations back.
How does it feel to be referred to as a National Dance Treasure?
I'm honored to have this reference. I don't think about this daily, but it does make me continue to strive to a level of excellence in what I create. It's important to keep growing artistically and push boundaries of creativity daily. I don't ride on laurels.
You've started your dance company, served as a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, and Smithsonian Institution's first-ever Choreographer-in-Residence. Are there other goals you still want to fulfill?
I recently wrote my memoir, Chino and the Dance of the Butterfly, now available through UNM Press. I learned how much writing is like choreographing, and I love it. One of my goals is to publish again very soon.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I want my legacy to be one that inspires young artists, that somehow messages that dedication to dance as an art form can take you on a beautiful journey where your dreams are fulfilled. When I think about the theaters I've performed in and the countries I've toured, I am thankful. Maybe that's the key - strive for beauty, being thankful along the way.
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