Dana Tai Soon Burgess: Dancing in the Time of COVID (photos)

In the early evening of Friday, Oct. 9, at the Arts Club of Washington, the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company performed historic solos choreographed by Michio Ito, as well as excerpts from Burgess’s latest dances, inspired by the paintings of John Singer Sargent. The outdoor performance was noteworthy because it was in front of a live audience, a rarity in the time of COVID-19.

Safety protocols were observed by dancers and audience alike. Temperatures hovered comfortably in the low 60s. “The company dancers were thrilled to be back onstage outside with a masked, socially distanced audience. The pandemic has been a difficult time for young performers in their prime, and to be able to dance safely in front of an audience again was thrilling for them,” remarked Burgess.

The pandemic presents particular challenges and risks for professional dancers, who traditionally work tightly together onstage and in not well ventilated studios and dressing rooms.

“Currently the company does the bulk of its rehearsals and company classes via Zoom,” said Burgess. The Arts Club, located in a house built in 1805 at 2017 I St. NW, has been allowing rehearsals on Saturdays in its music room. “Before each masked rehearsal, we do temperature checks and I rehearse the dancers at a 20-foot distance, working with those who have been quarantined and/or take regular COVID tests. We also have breaks for hand sanitizing. Furthermore, the club has a new high standard filtration system HVAC. These rehearsals allow me to coach the dances and see details that I couldnt see on a computer screen,” he explained. “We won’t allow the dancers to perform unless we believe they and the audience are safe.”

The company on this evening featured four short pieces by dancer and choreographer Michio Ito (1892-1961) and five by Burgess. Ito left Japan as a teenager to study music in Europe, where he began to explore modern dance. The distinctive style he developed led him eventually to Hollywood. Ito’s progress was halted abruptly when, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was placed in an internment camp, then deported to Japan, where he died two decades later. “Michio Ito has been a figure of inspiration to me,” said Burgess.

In May of 2016, Burgess was named the Smithsonian’s first-ever choreographer in residence at the National Portrait Gallery. He has immersed himself in the galleries, finding inspiration from the paintings and photographs that hang there. His new work “Reflections on John Singer Sargent,” was created in conjunction with the Portrait Gallery exhibition “John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal.”

The costumes for the evening were by designers Judy Hansen and Sigrid Johannesdottir. In order to ensure the safety both of the dancers and the audience, DTSBDC had special masks made that coordinated with each costume.

The company recently performed outdoors for first responders at the Kennedy Center’s Reach, with all health guidelines followed.

With the temperatures getting cooler, the company does not anticipate further performances this coming fall and winter, because it does not feel comfortable performing indoors. “This was truly a special opportunity for the dancers to perform safely outside on a beautiful night with a supportive and engaged audience,” said Burgess.

You can view Jeff Malet’s photographs of this special performance at the Arts Club by clicking on the photo icons below.


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