“It’s amazing how quickly a society can forget who these individuals are, and how important their voices were, and how important they can be, presently, again,” Burgess says. “Because society needs mentors. We need to be able to visualize them and to see the grace that they embodied, even to this day.”
Giving that grace a different kind of embodiment now is a new online video project by the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, a D.C.-based modern troupe that Burgess founded in 1992. Fusing his choreography with historical footage, the “Social Justice Leaders Series” is streaming on the company’s website, dtsbdc.org, with new pieces debuting about once a month. In addition to Campbell, Anderson and Johnson, the series will feature journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, activists Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Inspired by the permanent exhibition “The Struggle for Justice” at the National Portrait Gallery, where Burgess is the Smithsonian’s first choreographer-in-residence, the social justice series offers both oblique and mimetic reflection on its subjects. In the roughly five-minute tribute to Campbell (1917-2012), for instance, dancer Sidney Hampton pivots and extends his leg, often with wing-evoking arms, amid projected footage of World War II-era planes. Set to the spiritual “Oh, Glory,” the soloist’s elegant balancing and streamlined motion conjure the potential risk, exhilaration and loneliness of flight. But the video is educational, too, with a text panel about Campbell, who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses during World War II and went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam.
Burgess’s dance identity has long been entwined with an interest in history and social justice. Of Korean American heritage and raised in New Mexico, he gravitated to the work of Michio Ito, the Japanese-born modern dance pioneer who was held in an internment camp in New Mexico during World War II. His affinity with Ito, Burgess says, is part of the journey that has led him to create dances about civil rights icons.
His company premiered a live Marian Anderson homage at the Portrait Gallery in February 2020, in conjunction with an exhibit about the singer. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. In subsequent months, as protests against racial injustice accelerated across the country, Burgess decided to focus on works that would speak to the times. He wanted the company, he says, to provide “historic context for this contemporary conversation that’s going on now, and help, through the medium of art, to inform people — help people become more empathetic of different perspectives and voices.” The rise in attacks and discrimination against Asian Americans has made this goal seem increasingly urgent.
The pandemic forced artists to work on digital platforms, but Burgess welcomed the challenge. “Online becomes a whole different way for a choreographer to consider art making,” he says. “I didn’t want to just have dance that looked like archival videos.”
So interdisciplinary artist Kelly Colburn — who had worked on the Burgess work “Silhouettes” — joined the “Social Justice Leaders Series” as videographer, editor and co-producer. Lighting designer Dylan Uremovich also signed on.
The first video, “A Portrait of Marian Anderson,” draws on recorded footage from the 2020 live production. In the short digital reinvention, the dancers execute strong but lyrical movements, while split screens and camera cuts interweave documentary glimpses of Anderson’s career, notably her April 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial after she had been barred from singing at Constitution Hall because she was Black.
The choice of Anderson was a no-brainer. To select other figures, Burgess took note of the “Struggle” exhibit and talked to curators and dancers, ultimately drawing up a list of individuals whose lives seemed to resonate with America’s current moment and who kindled his imagination. He has a playbook for creating dances linked to historical figures: researching biography and period; crafting movement phrases that correlate with the subject’s voice or experience (the flight imagery in the Campbell dance, for instance); and extrapolating those phrases to create a broader piece.
But might the spliced-in modern dance distract from the individuals the project aims to honor? Or might the choreography overshadow the historical footage?
Colburn isn’t worried about any mismatch. After all, she says, many of us “watch documentaries all the time. The only difference here is that, instead of interviewing folks, we’re expressing and telling stories through dance. Especially since these are historical figures, it’s really important that we be able to see who these people were, alongside the art that we are making about them.”
For his part, Burgess says the team is taking pains to balance artistic and documentary elements and to avoid clouding the historical figures in abstraction. “We talk about the messaging,” he says. “We storyboard.”
What the dance component adds, he says, is not only another entry point for education, but also an implicit invitation to embrace, and internalize, a good example.
“What I’m hoping,” the choreographer says, “is that, for each of these figures, after people watch a video, they’re able to feel, ‘I can embody something about this person.’ ”
Social Justice Leaders Series Videos are scheduled to debut at least through Aug. 4. Free to stream at dtsbdc.org.