Inside DM

Dances at a Gallery

Dana Tai Soon Burgess is the National Portrait Gallery’s first choreographer in residence.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company in Confluence. Photo by Jeff Malet, Courtesy DTSBDC.

If you visited the “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, you probably noticed photographer CYJO’s portrait of choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess. It’s a lovely image, but it doesn’t show his work in motion. That will change. Earlier this year, the Smithsonian named Burgess its first choreographer in residence. Over the coming three years Burgess will create new works inspired by and in collaboration with the museum’s exhibitions, and participate in public discussions and open rehearsals about dance, art and portraiture.

For National Portrait Gallery associate curator Dorothy Moss, the objective of incorporating dance and other performance arts is to bring new audiences into the museum and catch visitors off-guard. “They come to visit, and find motion and music and all sorts of lively action in the museum,” she says. The Smithsonian is one of many museums exploring live performances. “These are not spontaneous performances,” says Moss. “They are put together the same way an exhibit is,” with intensive research and collaborative partnerships. “The intellectual framework must be there to ensure that the art and performance fits with our mission.”

This is not Burgess’ first foray into the museum and gallery world. The son of two artists, he grew up amid galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has previously worked in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. “What’s interesting about portraiture is that there is the subject, the portrait, and then there’s the psychology of the portrait itself,” says Burgess. “And that psychology relates really well to the world of dance because it allows the inner terrain to be explored through movement.”

The first of Burgess’ new museum collaborations takes place in October in the museum’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, a soaring space with a glass ceiling. Drawing from works in the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, Burgess will explore identities and personal stories through modern dance. The images he chose all feature youths and young adults as subjects. “One of the main themes of the exhibit is the question of what’s facing our young people today—gender, finding a sense of place, immigration, cultural identities, questions that are at the forefront of our American dialogue right now.”

Burgess and his 10 company dancers will also rehearse in the galleries of the Outwin exhibit, where patrons can observe and ask questions when the performers go on breaks. “Rehearsing right in front of the portraits is so inspiring. If there is a question or the dancers need to examine a posture or observe how people are responding, it’s right there.” 

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