Memory is destiny in Dana Tai Soon Burgess's new work, "Images From the Embers," which premiered Friday at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Throughout the 75-minute work, the chronic pain of lost love fills the stage like smoke, as subtle lighting, dark music and tense, deliberately hesitant movement create a layered impression of mourning.
This work marks a departure for Burgess, a leading figure on the local dance scene. In nearly 15 years of choreography, he generally has avoided current events and trends. As so much of concert dance has tilted toward high-energy athletic output, Burgess has drawn on the languid pace and attention to detail of Japan's Butoh and Noh theater, and has even paid tribute to the outmoded and all-but-forgotten pioneer Michio Ito, a choreographer whose rising influence in the early decades of the last century fell victim to America's anti-Japanese sentiment. And long before Oliver Stone's take, Burgess had examined Alexander the Great's emotional conflicts in a work called "Gandhara."
However, in his newest piece, commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society, Burgess tuned in to the zeitgeist. "Images From the Embers" distills the social and political unease about war. The choreographer has said that he drew on French writer Marguerite Duras' World War II-era short stories about moving on after traumatic experiences. But the piece that resulted is steeped in a watchful uncertainty that feels decidedly current.
There is much to admire in this work, particularly Burgess's often deft methods of conveying past and present in a single moment. The central character, a middle-aged woman looking back at her youth and the lover she lost to war, has been so shattered by death that it takes two dancers to embody her -- one to relive moments of passion with the soldier she loved, another to confront the bitter present without him. The figure of death, danced with haughty angularity by Shu-Chen Cuff, creeps in and out of scenes like a prowling cat. Toward the end, however, her presence is almost comforting, recalling a facet of the death character in Kurt Jooss's landmark antiwar work, "The Green Table," which American Ballet Theatre performed here in January.
Key to the lush emotional atmosphere is the work of celebrated lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, a frequent collaborator with Burgess, who adds shadows and glimmers to create a Rembrandt effect of truth emerging from darkness.
Vintage black-and-white photos projected on the stage as backdrops lend sentimental weight, particularly one at the beginning depicting a square-shouldered, beaming soldier and his girl, clutching a bouquet of flowers with an excited smile. As we gaze at the pair, a feat of computer wizardry makes the man slowly vanish from the picture, and his sweetheart's happy face, and those flowers -- all she is left with -- become a poignant statement of war's effect on the innocent.
The pang of that cleverly rendered image does not always carry through in the rest of the piece, however. One's imagination gets a heavy workout here, in piecing together disordered imagery into a coherent experience. Much of the choreography is deeply evocative -- the women waltzing alone, with empty arms, for instance. Yet some of it feels unrelated, particularly the dancing of three women in black who seem to represent the inevitable push of time, but don't make much of an impact.
With the abstract and, at times, indecipherable dancing, Aaron Leitko's commissioned music, similarly abstract and hazy, only added to a sense of perplexity. Perhaps this was intentional. Yet the moments of bewilderment competed with the emotional pull. A more concrete musical grounding, echoing the nostalgia of the photos, perhaps, might have carried the work over the rough spots.
Still, "Images" ended on an evocative note: The figure of death welcomes a new victim, the woman who cannot let go of the soldier boy she lost long ago. Or is it simply part of her that dies? I interpreted this as a hopeful sign. When ghosts exist side-by-side with the living, when remembered losses happen over and over, Burgess seems to say, isolation is inevitable. Letting go, even if it is to bury a piece of your heart, will at least open the door to something new.