Good dance choreographers often tailor pieces to their dancers’ strengths and specialties. Dana Tai Soon Burgess, founder of the modern troupe Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co., has taken that approach one step further: He’s creating a work based entirely on one of his dancer’s personal experiences.
“Becoming American” highlights company dancer Katia Chupashko’s past of coming to the United States from South Korea through an adoption agency. The impeccably moving modern work details Chupashko’s journey as she leaves her native country, meets her new parents in a bustling airport, and settles into her strange new home.
Expressions and hand gestures in the ballet articulate the struggles that a young Chupashko underwent as she grappled with feelings of displacement. The dancers who portray her new parents often mingle and move together in dance as if they are one. But Chupashko often finds herself dancing on her own, never quite in sync with the parental duo.
The work is not an exact recollection of Chupashko’s memory. She doesn’t remember the day her parents picked her up from Philadelphia International Airport when she was just 2 years old and her brother was 4. But she does recall the “mixed emotions” of being physically different than the rest of the children in her small New Jersey-based primary school. She despised her dark eyes and long black hair and told her mother that she wanted plastic surgery to change her eye color and a perm to make her hair curly.
“I had an overwhelming sense of wanting to fit in,” she explained. In high school, however, she eventually embraced her ethnicity. “Now I just laugh,” she said.
Burgess specializes in personal stories of immigration and acculturation, and this notion of “self-identity” is a constant theme in his work. Past productions include “Charlie Chan and the Mysteries of Love,” a biographical work based on Burgess’s own fascination with the “Chinese” Hollywood detective as a child in New Mexico.
“Artists are often driven by a single theme that interests them, and throughout their careers they explore that one theme from many angles,” Burgess said. “My question was always how to find the self within a community. How do we fit into our communities? How does the community perceive us? We try to find a sense of home and cultural belonging.”
“Becoming American” runs Oct. 14 to 16 at Dance Place, 3225 8th St., NE. Tickets are $22. For more information, please call (202) 269-1600 or visit www.dtsbco.com.
About the Author
Rachael Bade is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.