George Washington University’s Dana Tai Soon Burgess, chair of the department of theater and dance and founder of Washington’s premiere Asian-American contemporary dance company, Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Co., travels this week to the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, to lead master classes in contemporary American dance. Accompanying him to Mongolia are George Washington University colleagues Connie Lin Fink, Kelly Moss Southall, and the G.W. alumna Sarah Halzack. At Arts & Academe, Burgess will be sharing, in words and photos, his experiences.
The U.S. Embassy in Mongolia and the Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs are supporting the trip with an $11,000 grant. Burgess has completed more than 20 international tours, including trips to Egypt, India, Israel, Peru, and the West Bank.
The master classes are scheduled to include 20 students from ninth grade through university level, most of whom come from rural areas in Mongolia. The program is slated to culminate with a performance by Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Co. in collaboration with eight dancers from Tumen Ekh Ensemble of Ulaanbaatar in a dance choreographed by Burgess.
After a 32-hour trip from Washington, we arrived safe and sound Monday night in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbataar. Our trip was delayed by a day due to the tragedy in Japan. We were rerouted through Korea on Sunday.
(Mongolia is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.) Tuesday morning, I began teaching the Tumen Ekh Company, one of the main folkloric companies in Mongolia. My assistants were Kelly Southall and Sarah Halzack. Kelly teaches in the department of theater and dance at George Washington University and Sarah is a G.W. alumna.
I taught a two-hour modern-dance class and, after a quick lunch break, began a new choreographic work. We danced to a recording of traditional Mongolian throat singers associated with the Tumen Ekh group. The sound is quite startling, much like a human didgeridoo.
The dancers of Tumen Ekh are quite talented, eager, stylistically versatile, and very interested in Western forms of contemporary dance. There have only been a handful of contemporary European and American dance companies to make it here in the last decade.
The Tumen Ekh dancers will perform with Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co later in the week. So far, I have choreographed six minutes and 30 seconds of the piece. I am especially pleased with a duet for two male dancers which evolved throughout the day. The dancers have an incredible openness to new forms of dancing and undoubtedly are the next wave of Mongolia’s arts scene.
After a long day, the director of Tumen Ekh invited our team to a performance of traditional and contemporary music and dance. I was taken aback by the live throat singers and their range of sounds. The venue was small but we saw the best of the traditional arts here in Ulaanbaatar. I was struck by the beauty of the Buddhist dances which have been handed down generation to generation. Bright masks, intricate embroidered cloaks, and jade and bone beads adorned the dancers as horns and drums surrounded their rhythmic movement.
Ulaanbaatar is a unique combination of Western and Eastern aesthetics. Block cement building and gers (or yurts) and other traditional Mongolian structures coexist side by side.
Today’s high was just above freezing and as the evening temperature plummets to well below zero, I realize it is time to sign off.
(Photos at Flickr, used by permission, courtesy of Dana Tai Soon Burgess and Co. and George Washington University)