Review: DANA TAI SOON BURGESS DANCE COMPANY at Kennedy Center's Family Theater

The premiere of Seeds of Toil

By: Apr. 21, 2024
Review: DANA TAI SOON BURGESS DANCE COMPANY at Kennedy Center's Family Theater
Enter Your Email to Unlock This Article

Plus, get the best of BroadwayWorld delivered to your inbox, and unlimited access to our editorial content across the globe.

Existing user? Just click login.

Wednesday’s premiere of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company’s (DTSBDC) newest work, Seeds of Toil: Three Asian American Stories of Resilience and Resistance, at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater featured some of the district’s most talented dancers and showcased both the wonder and some of the pitfalls of art with a social justice mission. 

Now in its 31st year, DTSBDC has long been committed to social justice, access to the arts, and cultural exchange, and is a 2024 Kennedy Center Social Impact Partner. Seeds of Toil includes a reading list and companion educational guide for students and audiences alike. The work centers on three moments in Asian American history: Korean immigrant pineapple harvesting in Hawaii, the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, and a five-year strike of Filipino and Mexican grape pickers for better working conditions and pay. The trilogy, while united in concept, is uneven, ranging from breathtaking to maudlin. 

The Pineapple Plantation, the first piece, is set to music by Philip Glass, whose signature arpeggios perfectly reflect the monotonous, repetitive drudgery of the pineapple pickers’ difficult work. I could almost feel the sun beating down as they made chopping gestures and walked in circles. Pineapples are a symbol of hospitality, meant to welcome guests, so it’s bitter and ironic that immigrants worked as indentured servants of a sort harvesting the fruit at the turn of the last century. Burgess’ own relatives were among the first Koreans to arrive and work at the plantations in Hawaii, and this family history inspired both the piece and his broader interest in Asian American stories. 

Choreographically it was also the most compelling of the three parts with a lovely pas de deux for the central couple in addition to a loose, earthy trio for the laborers towards the end that I wish I could see again. The dancers moved with intention and grounding, moving in, out of and across the floor like waves rushing into shore. Burgess has a way with floor work, and the dancers deftly navigate the tricky choreography, softening limbs when needed. 

Prisoner #44257, the second work, took a more literal approach to the story of Japanese internment. Given the small size of the Company it was smart to center the story on one family rather than try to represent the masses, but the result was largely sentimental, from the butterfly motif to the dramatic reaching as the daughter and her parents yearned to leave the camps. Some of the choreography resembled that of Martha Graham, with contorted spines and stylized screams; Graham’s love of melodrama also came through. After the nuanced first piece this was highly disappointing. 

Coalición, the third section, featured a central couple (presumably a Mexican and a Filipino farmer) and a corps of farmers. Here Burgess again showed his skill for spatial patterns and creating compelling visuals from what others may view as “background” movement. While the couple danced together in the foreground, the farmers rhythmically moved produce boxes across the stage in a mesmerizing pattern. These moments were beautiful for their simplicity and left me wanting more. The central couple’s choreography, however, felt predictable, with fists overhead to symbolize their protest. The moments of pure abstraction were the most compelling, perhaps because I didn’t easily understand them; they forced me to lean in and pay attention to the important histories being shared. 

The Company has a number of upcoming performances scheduled in the DMV this spring and summer, including another world premiere, and I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Runtime: 45 minutes

Photo Credit: Lauren Victor


To post a comment, you must register and login.

Vote Sponsor