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Columns at museum's entrance

Dance Brings American Stories Alive

Dana Tai Soon Burgess
June 11, 2018
A man and a woman dancing
Matailong Du / 2018

The Portrait Gallery enlivens its collection by being a leader in supporting contemporary artists as they forge new ways of interpreting portraiture.

I have the unique pleasure of being the Portrait Gallery's first choreographer-in-residence where I develop dances inspired by their exhibitions. I work with curators, historians, and portraitists to understand the unique back-stories of the images on view. Each portrait has a personal, as well as a larger historical and socio-political perspective. It is through these discoveries that I find inspiration for dance movement, and make musical and staging choices. It is wonderful to see how the often two- dimensional portrait can inspire a three dimensional dance. We often hold open rehearsals in the midst of the exhibitions in front of or near the works we are reflecting, as well as present performances in the galleries, the Kogod Courtyard, or the McEvoy Auditorium.  So far we have reached tens of thousands of audience members at the Portrait Gallery who follow the work. I enjoy speaking with patrons and explaining how a dance is made. Demystifying the creative process exemplifies the fluency between all art forms and makes the patron feel part of the creative process.  For me the dance is a canvas and the dancers are brushstrokes that illuminate a portrait for the audience.

Dancers moving very quickly in a museum gallery
Matailong Du / 2017

This June we go a step further, the dance company takes three works created during our residency at the Portrait Gallery to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on June 15-16. 

These dances were incubated at the Portrait Gallery and now begin to move to a full-proscenium.  We will begin the evening with the dance I Am Vertical, a dance inspired by the Portrait Gallery exhibition, “One Life: Sylvia Plath”, which revealed how Plath shaped her identity as she came of age as a writer in the 1950s and early 1960s. The dance explores Plath’s writing process in relation to her tangled and traumatic relationship with her husband Ted Hughes from their early attraction to the eventual collapse of their marriage. Next is After 1001 Nights, which explores the psychological impact of war on soldiers returning from combat. The dance is inspired by the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, “The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now”, and informed by interviews I conducted with American veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The dance tells the story of a returning veteran looking back at his younger self in battle as he tries to come to terms with what he witnessed during the war. Confluence is an abstract group work in four sections that explores the psychological terrain of brief encounters, trysts. These meetings ebb and flow revealing an underlying inter-connectedness between the group. The emotional state of the dance is not overtly happy nor is it sad, rather it resides in an uneasy, tentative place where trust is difficult to discern. The work is inspired by the National Portrait Gallery’s silver gelatin photo of modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey by Barbara Morgan. Humphrey is still, caught between shadow and light in a psychologically challenging image.

A group of dancers dancing with a large audience watching
Matailong Du / 2018

The Portrait Gallery is finding innovative ways to bring art forms together. For me the museum is not a place where one stands at a distance from an historic painting and walks on by with one’s hands in their pockets. Rather it is a place of wonder, creativity and excitement. What better place to be inspired by our American landscape but at the Portrait Gallery!

It is the future of incubating the arts in America. Now the ripples of this residency are moving out beyond these walls to our nation’s performing arts center.

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