For this initial step into Mixed Feelings and podcasting, I speak with Dana Tai Soon Burgess - who is one of the calmest and humble individuals I’ve ever met, despite also being incredibly cool. Like, he’s the Smithsonian’s first choreographer in residence - how neat is that?
Check it out on Shout!'s Soundcloud page here or play it directly below.
[00:00:00] Kalila Dahm (KD): Hey, welcome to Mixed Feelings, a multimedia series about mixed race identity, premiering on Shout! My name is Kalila Dahm, the creator of this series. Kalila is Arabic. It’s not a name that’s passed down generationally as I’m not Middle Eastern; my parents saw it in a baby book they bought from Zellers (which was like a Canadian Target) and liked it. My first middle name is Biblically inspired, and my second middle name is Spanish.
[00:00:35] KD: My last name, Dahm, is German. And I’m half Filipino, but fully Canadian.
[00:00:45] KD: I’ve never not confused people, which I guess has left people feeling entitled enough to an answer, to know precisely what it is that I am -- as though I’m an animal in a zoo. I know I’m not the only mixed kid out there who feels this way. And so, after two decades of frustration, confusion, objectification and otherness, I pitched Mixed Feelings. For this initial step into Mixed Feelings and podcasting, I speak with Dana Tai Soon Burgess - who is one of the calmest and humble individuals I’ve ever met, despite also being incredibly cool. Like, he’s the Smithsonian’s first choreographer in residence - how neat is that? Psst - You can catch his dance company, the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company on Saturday July 8, premiering a new dance: After 1001 Nights at the National Portrait Gallery. I’ll be there too.
[00:01:49] KD: I'll be there. Anyway, I’m done. Here’s Dana.
[00:01:56] Dana Tai Soon Burgess (DTSB): I grew up was a very small child in Carmel California. And then my parents moved to Santa Fe New Mexico when I was about five years old.
[00:02:07] DTSB: Growing up in Santa Fe It was like being thrown into this amazing multicultural mix all of a sudden because it went from California public schools to Santa Fe public schools which were at that time bilingual.
[00:02:28] DTSB: So it meant that I went to school suddenly and most of the day in Spanish with a mixture of English.
[00:02:36] DTSB: So that was a completely different experience for me.
[00:02:41] What, I’m kind of curious now, we’re gonna start to veer, this is more just for me, but what’s your first memory of Santa Fe?
[00:02:50] DTSB: Well I remember being very much in a rural, desert environment and being able to explore the landscape by myself as a child you know just walking and walking for miles and learning how to maneuver through landscape.
[00:03:09] KD: So I guess you spent a lot of time outdoors. What else did you do as a child, when you were growing up what you what kind of activities were you drawn to?
[00:03:17] DTSB: When I was growing up, both my parents were both visual artists and I really wanted to be engaged in arts as well. And I knew that visual arts wasn't my calling. So when I was, I guess maybe 10 or 11, I asked my parents if I could learn to play the piano. So I got in a car with my dad and I thought that I was going to take piano lessons.
[00:03:48] DTSB: And sure enough, like, he dropped me off at this martial arts dojo and that was actually the first day of my karate classes -- which I actually loved and I ended up becoming a competitive martial artist within the Southwest region all the way up into my late teens.
[00:04:05] KD: That's amazing. That sounds like a horrible trick to play on not a kid but that sounds like a wonderful way to get into that.
[00:04:14] DTSB: Well I think my father knew that that connection of mind body with lead me to my artistic journey and what was so neat about that Dojo or that karate school in Santa Fe which is right off of Canyon Road which is sort of the biggest arts road to this day and in Santa Fe where there's so many calories was that it was connected to a project about Souter. So when we weren't in the dojo actually practicing, we'd be outside sitting with the Tibetan monks having really fascinating conversations. So it was a it was an introduction to metaphysics and physicality and discipline.
[00:04:58] KD: That sounds, again amazing, just that. So, to my understanding, it was just a strip of road where there’s just a strip of road where there’s just a booming New Mexican art scene, and then a dojo… at the end of it, essentially.
[00:05:15] DTSB: Well it was kind of right at the beginning of it actually, there was a dojo that was connected to a Project Tibet centre. And it was shaped in, maybe an octagon? It was a very unusual building with multiple sides and a centre courtyard of gravel and it was really… you can’t make this stuff up. –Laughter-
[00:05:30] DTSB: And the building is still there actually, I visit it every once and a while.
[00:05:38] KD: OK, awesome. How long did you do martial arts for?
[00:05:44] DTSB: I did martial arts for about 10 years. I can't remember exactly, but about 10 years. And I competed all over, and I'm still friends with my original karate instructor as well.
[00:05:55] KD: This isn’t on here, and maybe we don’t have to answer it, but why did you stop doing martial arts?
[00:06:04] DTSB: I stopped doing martial arts because I was just growing up into this teenager that was looking for my evenings off, to look for excitement and challenge the world.
[00:06:26] DTSB: And I also think that I got to a point where I knew that it wasn't somehow feeding the next level of growth for me. And that's when I discovered dance, and it all made sense to me because there is this discipline, there's a physicality, there's a focus but then there's a creative artistic process and that was the missing link.
[00:06:46] DTSB: Oh it's funny. I remember taking this dance class and in Santa Fe with one of my friends. And it's just modern dance improv class and I just remember thinking these teachers absolutely nothing no idea what they're talking about.
[00:07:01] DTSB: But it was so odd that I thought, “Oh. I've got to figure out what this thing called dance is, what is modern dance,” you know? And I think it was interesting because growing up there, in the time period that I did -- it was a very conservative Catholic Hispanic community and then an American Indian community.
[00:07:26] DTSB: There was the Anglo community and then there was just this tiny Asian community and Asian-American community.
[00:07:33] DTSB: So I think I often felt like an outsider in a lot of different places. So what was great was to learn the language of movement and dance that I could communicate what is really kind of going on within my interior world. And that's I think what I continue to do is create these emotional landscapes to express ideas and concepts and people's stories and historical stories of them.
[00:08:05] KD: I’m so fond of everything you’re saying!
[00:08:11] KD: So you grew up so there is a small Asian-American community was it but was it a Korean-American community… like how was that? Were you part of it?
[00:08:23] DTSB: Well I come from a really large Korean-American family. But my mom was the first one from that side of my family to move to what we called the mainland of America.
[00:08:39] DTSB: And so she went to art school at Cranbrook University - Cranbrook Academy of Art and that's where she met my father. So she left Hawaii where she grew up and moved to the mainland and remained on most of my relatives. To this day I have stayed in Hawaii vs. him.
[00:08:58] KD: Where did you go to school, and what did you end up studying?
[00:09:09] DTSB: Well, there are a couple things. It's funny, I almost have to go backwards a little bit.
[00:09:13] DTSB: My father was, as I was saying, a visual artist as well. And he had a degree he did in Oriental Studies, when it was called Oriental Studies, from Yale and spoke multiple languages. He spoke Chinese, German, French and English. And then there's my mom who is Korean-American. So there were a lot of different like languages and concepts and exciting talk around the table with other artists that were going on.
[00:09:43] DTSB: So I distinctly remember that Issam Magucci was the first Amerasian that I met at dinner. And when I was a child just looking at him and thinking. “Oh there are people that like look like me up there right.”
[00:10:00] DTSB: I mean other artists and just listen to his stories of his trials and tribulations as an artist. So I think that my education, interestingly enough, came from an arts community that was very much informed by my parents’ friends.
[00:10:15] DTSB: And secondarily I was in New Mexico schools and dropped out of high school… wait, did I drop out?
[00:10:28] DTSB: I graduated from high school early.
[00:10:30] DTSB: I did concurrent enrollment in college at University New Mexico and then I left college to dance professionally and then went back to finish the degree and I really enjoyed my time at University New Mexico and then I received a MFA from George Washington University.
[00:10:47] KD: Oh cool. That's very cool.
[00:10:50] KD: Thank you. Appreciate that. So I noticed that you use, you used, Amerasian to describe one of the artists that you met, and that earlier you also said American-Asian. What do those two terms mean for you, do they mean something different?
[00:11:06] DTSB: Yeah. You know it's funny how… The way we use language to define the way people define themselves I guess just changes over time.
[00:11:21] DTSB: So… Say, 30 years ago people were talking a lot about multiculturalism and then that became cultural equity and then cultural equity became diversity.
[00:11:37] DTSB: So there's always this changing dialogue around the concept of a culture, of race, where do people belong, who am I, who are my people. And so that changes.
[00:11:49] DTSB: So there are all these different words that, you know, describe individuals who are half Asian. So they're like, hapa which is you know – hapa haole which is like, a Hawaiian term where you're half Asian and half haole white. Then there's Amerasian, which you know American half Asian Eurasian have European background. But then our largest growing community are individuals who are biracial within the Asian-American community.
[00:12:20] DTSB: So I think where things get confusing is: what does the hyphen mean?
[00:12:30] DTSB: And so it's a, it's a personal way of expressing oneself. I think you just sort of come to the language that best describes your generation where you come from who you feel you are. And sometimes in different situations that changes.
[00:12:44] KD: And so for you, you feel most comfortable with American-Indian or Amerasian?
[00:12:48] DTSB: I feel most comfortable with Asian-American. Yeah, just because there’s that hyphen in there that’s easy, you know, easy to explore and my family on my mom's side are part of the first Korean families to America that they came in 1903 and so they were displaced from Korea when Korea is being closed off by the Japanese in the early 1900s and ended up working on the plantations of Hawaii.
[00:13:22] DTSB: And that's where you can sort of find the earliest Korean-American community there.
[00:13:27] DTSB: So that's kind of fascinating. So our archives now is actually at the American History Museum. So this is in our family archives there.
[00:13:40] KD: Yeah that’s super cool! So you’re like, super attached to the Smithsonian in multiple ways then?
[00:13:44] KD: Oh yeah. I love the Smithsonian. I mean it's great that we have so many multiple perspectives that are house to just show the diversity of America. To show all these different points of view.
[00:13:58] DTSB: It's really great. And the world itself. I mean look again how incredible are all of the world. Is that something House is just using. I know what is so great to go just like hang out there.
[00:14:10] KD: They’re air conditioned too, it is just wonderful. Yeah. I also noticed that you used the word hapa haole?
[00:14:21] KD: And if I’m correct in remembering it’s Hawaiian and Asian?
[00:14:27] KD: Hapa just means half. So in Hawaii you’d just say, “Oh, he’s hapa. Oh, he’s half.”
[00:14:33] KD: OK. What does that term mean for you?
[00:14:36] KD: I mean, again, these all stray from the interview questions I sent you. So if you're not comfortable, like I totally understand.
[00:14:47] DTSB: It just means I understand it because I have a Hawaii connection. Being hapa is not a bad thing, at all, it’s just a term they use, like, “Oh, he’s hapa.”
[00:14:55] KD: It's just thinking about my own experience and just like, the first time I heard mestiza, I was like, “Oh, like they don't mean that nicely.” I was wondering if that was with you.
[00:15:05] DTSB: Well that's interesting, I have to think about that.
[00:15:08] DTSB: But when I think about the different ways that like like you're saying in terms of the software it's a threat and that's part of a whole category of the categorization of individuals that came about through calling you what some in South America which is a little bit different. And the term hapa. And what's so interesting about those terms you refer to is just the specification.
[00:15:39] DTSB: So based on skin color and by the amount of intermixing somebody had with Spanish blood etc. you know or African blood it's like it's that's it's I can see where there is you know that immediate response that you're having to it.
[00:15:57] KD: You know, it's incredibly loaded term, even now. Yeah, unbelievable. Have you ever been to Hawaii?
[00:16:09] DTSB: Oh yeah, many times.
[00:16:14] KD: And I take it you’ve been to Korea as well?
[00:16:13] KD: How do those experiences experiences compare? Do they compare, in terms of retracing..?
[00:16:20] DTSB: You know since my family arrived in 1983 what my oral family histories are that I understand and know from childhood are of a Korea that doesn't exist anymore.
[00:16:39] DTSB: So those are just time capsule. Like, the images of Korea are like you know the old Korea Palace the old streets. You know this the Han River and all these things but those images are wonderful stories that I keep with me because I remember hearing from my grandparents or me from grandparents but that's not the Korea of today which is so cutting edge. So on the move like constantly changing you know if I am not in Korea like over to your time span or something the next time I go there I can't recognize anything because it's just changing so quickly. So when I go to Korea and come back let's say if I have to go through what we are just back to my mind I think what becomes really clear is that there is an Asian-American identity. It is so different.
[00:17:38] DTSB: Like me being a Korean American is so different than me being Korean in terms of experience.
[00:17:44] KD: It's very interesting. It's super interesting. What was - How old were you the first time you went to Korea?
[00:17:56] DTSB: Maybe 20, I think. Maybe 21.
[00:18:03] OK. OK. Yeah. What was that, do you remember what it was like? Like what prompted you to go?
[00:18:04] DTSB: Yeah, there was a dance festival there.
[00:18:06] DTSB: So I went and then the next time I went I was teaching master classes I think at a university for summer program and then I’ve been there multiple times for different trips a lot of times coming back through Asia from other performing or choreographic workshops.
[00:18:29] DTSB: I think it was.. I think it was so long ago but I remember just feeling like I'm looking for that old Korea that I had heard about and that was sort of it was great to be there. It was amazing to explore for the first time but it was also a little bit of a mourning process.
[00:18:53 DTSB:] And then really realizing that some of the things I had heard about didn't exist anymore.
[00:19:01] KD: So would you would you do that again if you could tell the younger Dana or would you would you encourage him to go on, to go on a trip?
[00:19:12] DTSB: Oh absolutely.
[00:19:00] KD: Do you, do you think that kind of trip is worthwhile? So, would you, would you do that again? Do you think that kind of trip is worthwhile? To go retrace your your ancestors. Yeah absolutely.
[00:19:26] KD: Just again thinking about my own experiences. I've been actively deterred from my grandparents to go to the Philippines and they said there's no way you should just get to know the Filipino community here.
[00:19:49] KD: Did you get a chance to the Philippines?
[00:19:39] DTSB: No, no, I have not. I would love to go.
[00:19:51] KD: When you were in Korea or not even in Korea but like in that where else have you been around those areas in Asia?
[00:20:00] DTSB: Mongolia, China, Hong Kong before it was part of China, Japan…
[00:20:17] KD: Were you there for dance things? Or were you there as a cultural ambassador?
[00:20:24] DTSB: In Mongolia, We did this really great tour… It was.. So fascinating, I like loved it.
[00:20:30] DTSB: And where we taught classes and also performed. And that was great. We loved Ulaanbaatar. And I taught in Hong Kong and then was teaching in China and also toured through China because I was doing research on the Silk Road for a project years ago there was a commission from the Kennedy Center based on the Silk Road. So that was exciting. I wanted to within that year go through different parts of the Silk Road.
[00:20:58] DTSB: So the year prior That's when I was in Pakistan and Afghanistan and or maybe within the last six months. So I went from Shian, which was just sort of like a main gates or the start of the Silk Road in China and then checked into different parts of it along the way. Yeah. It was great.
[00:21:20] DTSB: I think we underestimate how much economy, commerce has flowed back and forth between the east and the west, you know for a moment.
[00:21:30] KD: Yeah, we’re learning about that in a class that I’m taking right now actually, about the relationship between the US and China - just how long and important a relationship that is.
[00:21:44] KD: So we’ve strayed quite a bit and it’s entirely my fault. We have about 13 minutes left in the room, specifically, maybe we could try and answer some about some questions about your current art projects. So that way we can start to plug some of your own work.
[00:22:08] DTSB: Well I'm currently on the Smithsonian's first Cragg and residence and I'm working on several projects right now and one premieres on July 8 at 2 p.m. 4 p.m. National Portrait Gallery Kogod courtyard. And it's based on an important exhibition right now entitled The Face of Battle: 9/11 until now. So it really is. Looking at the portraits and artistic interpretations of artists around individuals and veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghan wars. So so this particular dance which is for 10 dancers focuses on this concept of post-traumatic stress disorder and looks at the underlying abstract narrative. Looking back at his younger self.
[00:23:09] KD: That's really nice to know before I go and see that.. To have that background? Super cool. I guess, is that also where we can see you and/or your company perform next? At the Smithsonian?
[00:23:24] DTSB: Yeah. Yeah. July 8th the Kogod courtyard noted. And it’s free.
[00:23:36] KD: Actually, how long have you been in DC?
[00:23:42]: DTSB: Almost 30 years for the D.C. I came to D.C. to dance professionally you know when you grow up in a small town in the Southwest essentially you have to get to either the West Coast for entertainment that's like kind of a video industry or you get to the east coast for modern dance or ballet.
[00:24:12] You don't think of that. So we're kind of a coastal driven occupation. And so I did a lot of tours up and down the East Coast and that your you know toured with companies that you get in Boston and this and that. And then I just fell in love with the city because. And one of the huge shots for me is still a place that I'm at right now and that has to do the Smithsonian and the availability of access to the free art. Yes I think that's so important and it's very unusual in any city.
[00:24:47] KD: It's not like that in Canada or like not not in Ottawa as a point of comparison all the museums today for what is once international like that. Yeah. Why don't you kind of already answered this but I wanted slightly more: What makes DC a good city for dance?
[00:25:09] DTSB: I think what makes D.C. a good city for dance is what makes D.C. a good city for many other things as well. And that's it. There's a thriving local dance scene regional dance scene an international dance scene. So there are these multiple layers of dance in the Washington region. And so those layers make a wonderful options for stepping stones to build a career and to also have a sense of home a sense of space and to build audience communities.
[00:25:43] KD: Ok cool. Did you find that D.C. was good for exploring your identity as well like as a mixed - I guess as an Asian-American. Sorry, I use mixed - as an Asian-American.
[00:25:55] DTSB: Yeah absolutely it has. Yeah. And I think that you know D.C. has changed immensely since I moved here. It is much more diverse now and it has of course every city has a long way to go. Right. But it's definitely an exciting changing landscape where culture is appreciated and talked about.
[00:26:25] DTSB: And so I appreciate the dialogue of being with the city just makes it easier to find your people who've had similar experiences as well.
[00:26:30] KD: Yeah. So for somebody who has not been in D.C. for quite as long as anybody here. What are some of your favorite outdoor summertime activities to do here. Besides of course the Smithsonian?
[00:27:01] DTSB: Well you know I'm not a huge fan of heat humidity so but I love to do is walk very early in the morning and take long walks. And so I think just the whole the natural canopy of D.C. is amazing and being able to walk past the different memorials and sort of contemplate all these great leaders and to walk past the Lincoln memorial walk past these all of these different continents and be inspired by them. So I have to do that. And with DC also has which is amazing so many beautiful and thriving rooftop bars.
[00:27:46] And so it's really exciting to see the sunset and enjoy being with friends as well.
[00:27:54] So it's wonderful. And then during your morning like one time approximately do you go for walks like I said before the sun rises No 7 a.m. or actually 8 a.m. at the range.
[00:28:08] KD: In my head is just like he was like as the sun rises over the Lincoln Memorial.
[00:28:12] There is fire. So how come there for the day. And I love looking through all the different neighborhoods in D.C. I love walking through my neighborhood. Yeah.
[00:28:24] That's great. Do you listen to anything during that time? You know end up looking for answers.
[00:28:29] So yeah it is so much fun yeah.
[00:28:33] Very Christian.
[00:28:36] And - oh, this is this is actually for me more than it is for this interview. Do you have any favorite places to like grab coffee or like brunch or anything like that?
[00:28:48] Anything that you like, wrap up your walks with?
[00:28:52] Now I mean.. I like all the different you know coffee places in the city.
[00:28:58] I mean there are so many different ones but it's I don't have one that's just my favorite here!
[00:29:05] Hey, Kalila again. Just a reminder that Dana's newest dance piece called After 1001 Nights will premier Saturday July 8th at 2 and 4 p.m. at the National Portrait Gallery. The event is free. But be sure to get there early if you want seating. Until next time, I'm Kalila Dahm. Be on the lookout for Mixed Feelings updates on by shout dot com and Shout news on Facebook, which is also how I can be reached! Anyways. Take care.
Psst - You can catch his dance company, the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company on Saturday July 8, premiering a new dance - After 1001 Nights - at the National Portrait Gallery.