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National Portrait Gallery Celebrates History Of Dance

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Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company members Sarah Halzack and Kelly Moss Southall rehearse a dance inspired by the past.
Mary Noble Ours
Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company members Sarah Halzack and Kelly Moss Southall rehearse a dance inspired by the past.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess is giving directions to some of his company members. But the dancers aren't rehearsing in a traditional studio. They're at the National Portrait Gallery, tweaking their choreography for "Homage," a site-specific work that will be performed tomorrow in the museum's Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard.

Burgess says the work is literally a homage to all of the different dancers pictured within the museum's Dancing the Dream exhibit, which covers more than 100 years of dance in America with posters, photographs and even some video clips.

"I think that there's a great relationship between the visual arts and the performing arts, and what's so neat about it is that an image from the past can inspire a contemporary piece of choreography today," says Burgess.

"Homage" includes a soundtrack of interviews and music associated with important moments in American dance history.

Amy Henderson, a cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery, says the exhibit is all about American identity.

"Our identity is so wrapped up in the music, in the theater, the movies, in the dance that we create, and I wanted to do an exhibition that showcased how dance really is America's culture in motion," says Henderson.

But she says still images only go so far, so she brought Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company on board as the Smithsonian's first-ever choreographer-in-residence.

Even though choreography is usually created in a mirror-lined studio, Burgess says he has really enjoyed working in the small, gallery space.

"When I have a question about inspiration from an image at the museum, I literally can just say wait for one second, dancers," she says. "I need to walk around the corner and check this photograph back out again. And I feel like I've got my whole library of research available to me right here."

Those images inspiring Burgess are on display at the National Portrait Gallery through July 13.

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