After 1001 Nights: Interview with Kelly Southall

Image of three men dancing in a line
Photo by Jeffery Watts

Kelly Moss Southall is a dancer and associate artistic director of Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company. Prior to joining the Company, he performed in works by Sean Curran, the Azaguno African Dance Ensemble, and the Shelter Repertory Dance Theatre. In addition to his work with DTSBDC, Southall is on the Theatre and Dance faculty at The George Washington University.

1.  How did you first start working as a dancer for Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company in Washington, DC (DTSBDC)?

Soon after graduating from college, in 2006, I participated in a dance workshop in Pittsburgh. While I was there, I met Jan Tievsky, who was the Board President of DTSBDC at the time. We developed a nice connection after working alongside each other that week, and she asked about my future plans and whether I had ever heard of Dana’s company. I hadn’t at the time, but I went home that evening and watched videos of Dana’s work online. I remember being so impressed and thinking, “I could never move like all of those beautiful dancers!” Jan connected me with Dana, who then invited me to DC for an audition. After a few days of working with the company, I was offered a contract, and I’m now starting my eleventh season! In addition to performing, I’m also serving as the Associate Artistic Director.

2.  With the latest Dana Tai Soon Burgess piece, which was inspired by the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now, how has the subject matter touched you or informed your work as a dancer?

I play one of the leading roles in Dana’s latest work. My character is processing a traumatic experience he had at war, and at the same time, he is working to lead a civilian life now that he’s back home. It’s not a light subject to take on by any means. To be honest, I wasn’t sure of myself in the beginning. I wasn’t sure that I would have the ability to do the role justice. Over the past few months, I’ve become more familiar with my character’s story, and I’m naturally drawing connections to him using my own life experiences. Discovering this feeling of empathy has probably been both the most informative and touching part of my professional experience. It is very powerful. 

Image of a man standing in a gallery looking at three moving shapes
Matailong Du, 2017. 

3.  What is it like to dance for a visual arts museum?  How has this project changed your perspective?

Character development naturally occurs in Dana’s works as all the elements begin to fuse together and take shape. I’ve had many moments of both self-reflection and reflecting on soldiers’ stories, particularly when we’ve rehearsed inside the exhibit. One can pull a lot of energy and inspiration from the artwork. I found myself being drawn into the black-and-white photographs in the room where we rehearsed. The expressions on the soldiers’ faces are very powerful—occasionally distracting me from the dance and causing me to lose focus or miss a musical cue.  

The intimate moments portrayed in Dana’s work are supported by the intimate qualities of the artwork within the exhibit and our close proximity to museum visitors during the open rehearsals. Rehearsing in front of an audience makes me hyper-aware of my surroundings and catapults my work to the next level, something that can’t always be achieved in the studio alone. The dance and exhibit belong together, and I think both benefit greatly from one another. I’m excited to meet and hear from those visitors who saw my work in-progress and who return to see the final performance. I look forward to learning about their perspectives.

4.  Which work of art at the National Portrait Gallery inspires you as a dancer?  

I’m drawn to a number of the works in the exhibit, but I think the one that is most inspiring for me is Vincent Valdez’s piece Home. The slow movement of this film may not seem like an obvious source of inspiration for a dancer. However, as it relates to my character, I think there is a powerful message behind this image of a flag-draped coffin floating through different places in the United States. It is a very sad piece, but I also think it can be a beacon for those who survived war and are still working through their trauma and experiences. Each healing step feels like a step closer to home. 

Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company will perform After 1001 Nights at the National Portrait Gallery on Saturday, July 8, at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., in the Kogod Courtyard. Inspired by the artworks in the exhibition The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now, the performance explores the psychological impact of war on soldiers.