Leading American choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess has been in Cambodia this week with seven members of his eponymous modern dance company.
As part of an exchange sponsored by the US Embassy, he has been teaching classes on modern dance and the history of ballet in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, which will culminate tonight in the performance of three dances at the Chaktomuk Theatre, one of which will be a collaborative duet between his company and the Sophiline Arts Ensemble.
Prior to his arrival, he spoke to Harriet Fitch Little about his Cambodian connections, and how his Asian heritage shapes his practice.
This is your second time in Cambodia. What was your project the first time you visited?
I was in Cambodia about three years ago, and I was teaching and lecturing for the US Patents office about how artists can trademark their work and what business structures can be utilised. There’s this economic duress that comes along with the development of an area. As Siem Reap has been developing, one of the worries is that you have these dancers from traditional dance families who are getting work from the larger resorts that are being built here. That breaks down the normal structure of the company and family. At the same time, they are in competition with dancers who don’t come from a traditional lineage and are doing more touristic dances.
What was your advice to the traditional artists back then?
One of the things that is most helpful is educating the community and consumers so that they understand the difference between something authentic and something inauthentic. There are individuals looking for a cheap souvenir from Cambodia no matter what, but you need to work through the educational process – not only for the artist but also with the Ministry of Culture, or with resorts themselves. Also, what was really great during my trip is that the man who is now my husband was on the trip also and when we were at Angkor Wat, he asked me to marry him. So I love Cambodia. It’s a very special place to me.
What strikes you as unique about Cambodian dance?
What I love about Cambodian dance is that not only does it tell stories, it also has what I’d call a ‘dream state’ quality to it. People are in this dream world when they’re dancing. Time is sort of altered from the way Western dance looks at time. Also, there’s such an important relationship with gesture that you don’t necessarily see as much in Western dance. You can’t generalise, but I think this whole concept of time and space connects a lot of Asia. Time has more sense of... timelessness, and a longer amount of time is used to develop a story or to move through space.
A lot of your work focuses on mixed cultural heritage and cultural exchange. Where does that interest come from?
My family was part of a very early generation of Korean immigrants to the US. When they first came, the Koreans were kind of like indentured servants. A plantation brought them over and they had to work a certain number of years to get independent of their contracts. So it was a pretty hard life, but it’s interesting. The Smithsonian just asked for our family archives, so now they have my grandfather’s original passport and all these original documents. It’s really exciting to be part of that particular American history. One thing I’ve noticed [with immigrant communities] is that often you have a point in time when there are a lot of traditional artists leaving their country, and you sometimes end up with the most traditional artists from a particular country not even being in their country of origin.
The experience of being a descendant of Asian immigrants is very different to that of growing up here. What aspect of your heritage do you feel gives you a greater sense of affinity with Asian dance, Cambodian in particular?
What I can connect to is that in a lot of ways Cambodia feels like its rebuilding. That’s something I can understand from the history of Koreans in America – this concept of trying to rebuild and also find renewal in tradition, and then figure out where we’re going in the modern world today, because in any case, that’s not stoppable. Our global economy is moving forwards so it’s about working out what we can keep as a primary part of our identity and cherish, while moving forward with other types of collaboration.
The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company will be performing with Sophiline Arts Ensemble at the Chaktomuk Theatre, Sisowath Quay, tonight at 7pm. Entry is free but call to book tickets: 077 945 015 / 077 986 015.
Collaborating on a dance love story
The highlight of tonight’s performance is set to be the collaboration between Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Shapiro.
The piece they are performing together is personal: a duet that tells the story of Sophiline meeting her husband John Shapiro.
As Sophiline explained last week, the idea has been in the pipeline for a while. “John wrote the script about our romance a while ago, maybe 15 years ago,” she said.
The dance on stage tonight will be of a wedding scene, with the bride played by one of Sophiline’s dancers, and her new American husband danced by New Yorker Ian Ceccarelli.
The collaboration is part of a long-term project under way at the Sophiline Arts Ensemble to spin the story courtship into an East-meets-West full-length musical.
Sophiline explained that she workshopped parts of the show with an American musical actor last year, but he wasn’t a dancer. Ceccarelli is a dancer, but not a singer.
“So when the [US] Embassy asked us to collaborate with Dana, we chose the wedding scene, because it doesn’t use singing, only music and dance.”
Sophiline said that it would likely be a while before the fully developed musical is shown in Cambodia.
Her husband has just finished reworking the script, and the couple will now begin looking for financial backers.
But she said she was excited to explore the potential for melding Cambodian and Western choreography with the wedding scene.
“This is kind of a test for us to collaborate together,” she said. Tai Soon Burgess is also looking forward to the experience.
“I saw a photo of John when he was younger, and he looked just like Ceccarelli,” he said.