Every time I see the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company perform, I wish I could watch each dance over and over again.

The Company Rehearsing

On Saturday, my wish came true.

My friend Jeanne and I were privileged to observe a rehearsal for the up-coming DTSBDC show, “Portraits.” This June 15th and 16th performance at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater will celebrate the company’s 25th year of delighting audiences as Washington, DC’s preeminent dance company.

The first dance rehearsed was “Confluence,” reviewed in this space on April 19, 2014 when it premiered in the magnificent Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery.

Even though this was a rehearsal, with stops and breaks for Burgess’s and Katia Chupashko Norri’s (associate rehearsal director), inventive notes to the dancers, this piece still took our breath away. Choreographer Burgess was inspired by the moody 1938 portrait of modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey by Barbara Morgan. The portrait was part of the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery’s show, “Dance the Dream,” which featured portraits of legendary dancers, Burgess himself among them.

Doris Humphrey, by Barbara Morgan, 1938

Fraught with psychological overtones, this dance expresses “an emotional terrain of the mind”—in Burgess’s words—the uncomfortable state brought about by short meetings—trysts—in which unresolved feelings abound.

The dancers became lit from within as they got into character—even though still working out spacing, timing, and minute changes in hand gestures, arm shapes, and where the dancer’s eyes should be focused. These and many other adjustments will ultimately combine to form the intention, emotional content, and musicality of the final performance. We were struck by Burgess’s and Norri’s precise and sometimes amusing notes to the dancers: “After the contact lens moment,” (a dancer plucks something invisible from the floor), “The music is pulling you in,” “Picture lasers in your arms carving the space into a figure eight.”

From the 2014 National Portrait Gallery Premier

The music for this piece is haunting. Ernest Bloch’s “Hebraic Suite” pumps up the emotional content, building tension as the dancers lift each other, fleetingly touch, curl to the ground, and pepper their lyrical movements with highly original hand gestures: pecking, stabbing, caressing, striking, and swooping in crane-like arches.

From the Premier

Next, the company worked on “I Am Vertical,” a dance inspired by Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name. Again, as the first-ever resident choreographer at the National Portrait Gallery, Burgess took his inspiration from a small but devastating NPG show of Plath’s art and writing. The dance opens with several couples dancing a spirited lindy hop to “Take the A Train.” When the music morphs into a surreal warp, a disembodied voice begins to read Plath’s poem: “I am Vertical…But I would rather be horizontal.” The dance plays with planes – upright and utterly still lying down. Following the poem’s haunting ending, “I shall be useful when I lie down finally,” we hear Plath interviewed about her fateful meeting with fellow poet and husband-to-be Ted Hughes. The role of Plath is danced by Sarah Halzack, with three other women dancers appearing as muses or influences on the poet; they change roles now and then, with each seated, miming typing on an invisible typewriter.

Sylvia Plath 1932 – 1963

Again, the dancing is sublime, the choreography original, and the emotional content utterly riveting.

After the rehearsal when the associate artistic director Kelly Moss Southall began literally to roll up the floor, we chatted briefly with Dana regarding the Plath piece. Jeanne, my friend, is a dance lover and a poet herself. Dana told us a bit about his process in creating a dance, how each dancer has her or his own motivations, inner desires, and character arc, and that each section of the dance corresponds to a chapter in a book, or an act in a play.

Once again, we could have watched for hours – and luckily, we will all get the chance to see these gem-like pieces—among others—performed at the Kennedy Center on Friday, June 15th and Saturday, June 16th at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, 7:30PM. Tickets are on sale now!

I hope to see you at this much-anticipated event in celebration of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company’s 25th year. We are fortunate indeed to have this stellar dance company performing in Washington, DC, but, in the words of the Washington Post’s dance critic, Sara Kaufman, “This artist is not only a Washington prize, but a national dance treasure.”

I am Vertical
by Sylvia Plath

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them —
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.






Atrium, National Portrait Gallery

Atrium, National Portrait Gallery

Lately I can’t get enough of the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington, DC. Opening in mid-morning, the gallery closes at 7:00PM. Once you’ve gobbled up your fill of art, you have time to sit under the magnificent floating roof to people-watch, be mesmerized by the fountain, or have a coffee. For future reference, it’s a wonderful place to sip a glass of wine during the winter—the atrium is magical after dark.

"Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris," by Barkley Leonnard Harris, 1972

“Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris,” by Barkley Leonnard Harris, 1972

And then—there’s the portraiture. There’s something so compelling about portraits, especially ones that show us more than a likeness, that offer a glimpse into the sitter’s inner life—his or her aspirations, fears, dreams, tragic flaws—or show us what it might have been like to live in a bygone era.

On view until January 2015, the exhibition “Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction” offers all this and more. During the period of 1945-1975, painting a portrait was a heretical act; most artists of the day disdained figurative painting in favor of pure abstraction. A few flew in the face of this trend to rediscover and reinvent portraiture.

The first image you see as you enter this exhibition is a knockout: “Sir Charles, alias Willie Harris,” by Barkley Leonnard Hendricks, oil on canvas, 1972. The wall placard tells us that the artist borrowed the coat from a seventeenth century Anthony van Dyke portrait, but I see Sir Charles as all about seventies black awareness, fashion, and presence. Each image shows a different expression: cool, diffident, in control, seeing all, missing nothing. A man to be reckoned with.

"Jamie Wyeth with Tan Background," by Andy Warhol, 1976

“Jamie Wyeth with Tan Background,” by Andy Warhol, 1976

"Andy Warhol," by Jamie Wyeth, 1976

“Andy Warhol,” by Jamie Wyeth, 1976

Portraits of each other by Jamie Wyeth and Andy Warhol caused a sensation when they were first shown in 1976 at New York City’s Coe Kerr Gallery. “The patriarch of Pop paints the Prince of Realism,” chortled a critic in The New York Times. Warhol’s “Portrait of Jamie Wyeth with Tan Background,” 1976, glamorizes the artist, embellishing his image with carvings in the thick paint, and giving the artist a wistful, romantic cast, with a peach-stained set of lips hovering, ghost-like, over his own. Wyeth’s image of “Andy Warhol,” 1976, on the other hand, gilds no lilies. Mercilessly detailed, Warhol’s eyes are blank under his alarmed-looking eyebrows, as if a flash bulb had just gone off. His pet dachshund, lovingly cradled in his arms, appears more engaged in the process than his master, peering with interest at the viewer/painter.

"Hugh Hefner," by Marisol Escobar, 1966-7

“Hugh Hefner,” by Marisol Escobar, 1966-7

“Hugh Hefner,” by Marisol Escobar, 1966-7, pokes sly fun at the urbane Playboy publisher, here seen as a blockhead with two pipes—bit of an oral fixation, eh, Hef? This bigger-than-life polychromed wood creation was made for a Time magazine cover, part of a trove of cover art given to the gallery by the publisher.

loftStar of the show may well be “Loft on 26th Street,” by pop art trickster Red Grooms (plywood, cardboard, paper and wire), 1966-7. This delightful piece shows us the studio apartment of Mimi and Red Grooms, “Home of Ruckus Films,” and its denizens partying up a storm. Grooms himself is slicing potatoes at the right of the diorama. Endless wonderful things to look at here: the art lining the walls, the detailed clothing, the contents of the fridge, even a recognizable china pattern my friend Pat had when we were living in New York’s lower East Side.

Jacob Lawrence’s 1966 portrait of Stokeley Carmichael (ink, gouache, and charcoal on paper) was commissioned to be a Time magazine cover, but the publishers, put off by Carmichael’s increasingly militant rhetoric, never printed it. A shame. It’s so raw, so powerful. At least it now can be seen in the Portrait Gallery’s collection.

"Stokeley Carmichael," by Jacob Lawrence, 1966

“Stokeley Carmichael,” by Jacob Lawrence, 1966

"Ginny in Striped Shirt," by Alice Neel, 1969

“Ginny in Striped Shirt,” by Alice Neel, 1969

Alice Neel has the knack of visually nailing the inner person, as we see here in “Ginny in a Striped Shirt,” oil on canvas, 1969. The sitter, Virginia Taylor, then the girlfriend of Neel’s son, Hartley, puts it well, saying Neel caught “…a certain passionate anxiety for life…[the artist] sees in me all the aspiration, conflict, determination … [of someone] who has seen enough to doubt, but still wanted to believe in a utopian future.”

Don’t you love the sense of play in the Larry Rivers sketch of Jack Kerouac? Made in 1960 (graphite on paper), Rivers was playing jazz sax and the musicality of this piece is evident. Fairfield Porter, an artist and leading art critic said that Rivers’ “…self-control comes from conscious spontaneity and constant awareness.” Interesting comment: control and letting go are seen as the yin and yang of the creative process.

David Park, with Richard Diebenkorn, was a California artist who returned to figuration in the fifties, saying, “Art ought to be a troublesome thing and one of my reasons for painting representationally is that this makes for much more troublesome pictures.” His portrait of San Francisco art patron, Ellen Brantsen, “Woman with Red Mouth,” 1954-55, with her garish mouth, blood red fingernails and brandished cigarette, is guaranteed to stir up

"Jack Kerouac," by Larry Rivers, 1960

“Jack Kerouac,” by Larry Rivers, 1960


"Woman with Red Mouth," by David Park, 1954-5

“Woman with Red Mouth,” by David Park, 1954-5

Another Bay Area artist, Joan Brown, gives us “Self Portrait with Fish and Cat,” oil enamel on Masonite, 1970. She hopes to convey “…the connection and the psychic response that the animal picks up from the person,” often dreaming exactly the scene she later paints. This work does have a dream-like quality with the figure floating,

"Self-portrait with Fish and Cat," by Joan Brown, 1970

“Self-portrait with Fish and Cat,” by Joan Brown, 1970

unmoored before the brilliant red background.

As you can see, there is much to enjoy in this show of some 50 paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints by 44 artists, including Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Romare Beardon, and more.

Now, I think I’ll go have a coffee in the atrium. Maybe I’ll go back for more portraits later.












"Madonna," by Kate Simon, 1983

“Madonna,” by Kate Simon, 1983

It’s the inevitable question you ask yourself after—and during—your tour of the “American Cool” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. What is cool? Who is cool? The curators of this lively show have come up with some answers, even as they claim not to have made personal judgments regarding their 100 selections. The notes accompanying the exhibit tell us that 1940s jazz saxophonist Lester Young popularized this originally African American concept. Cool became a “password in bohemian life connoting a balanced state of mind, a dynamic mode of performance, and a certain stylish stoicism.” Further, each person featured in the show has to possess at least three of the following:

  1. An original artistic vision carried off with a singular style
  2. Cultural rebellion or transgression for a generation
  3. Iconic power, or instant visual recognition
  4. A recognized cultural legacy
"Johnny Depp," by Annie Leibovitz, 2010

“Johnny Depp,” by Annie Leibovitz, 2010

This large and absorbing show, organized chronologically from “The Birth of Cool,” to the “Legacy of Cool,” features stunning photographs by greats such as Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz, and Richard Avedon.

Here are my coolest cats and kitties seen in the show (in no particular order):

“Madonna,” by Kate Simon, 1983. How could you not name this highly original artist, even as we’ve all chucked our fishnets, bustiers, and finger-less gloves (wait a minute—those have made a texting come-back) in the Salvation Army bin. Madonna remains the ultimate chameleon of cool.

"Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket," by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

“Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket,” by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

In the space labeled “Cool and Counterculture,” we come upon “Johnny Depp,” by Annie Leibovitz, 2010. The gorgeous inky blacks in this portrait embody the smoldering potency of this actor’s creative talent and penchant for playing complicated rogues.

“Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket,” by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976, captures the poet/musician’s rough-edged androgyny and the rawness of 1970s New York she epitomizes.

"Jimi Hendrix," by LInda McCartney, 1967

“Jimi Hendrix,” by LInda McCartney, 1967

Who wouldn’t vote for Jimi Hendrix as an exemplar of all the criteria (and a few more) listed above? Here he is in a photo by Linda McCartney, looking so young, with his puckish grin and sidelong glance—the quintessential trickster. What a loss!

“Roots of Cool” gives us this exquisite portrait of Lauren Bacall by Albert Eisenstaedt, 1949. Loved the quote by an anonymous critic of the day, summing up Bacall as “slinky as a lynx, hot as pepper, cool as rain, and dry as smoke.”

"Lauren Bacall," by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1949

“Lauren Bacall,” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1949

Ah, yes, the avatar of cool, “Bob Dylan,” by Richard Avedon (speaking of whom, where is he in this show? Where are any photographers?), 1965. This image speaks for itself, hurtling the viewer back in time (viewers of a certain age anyway) to when the arrival of a new Dylan album was cause for celebration and then slavish listening, all the while marveling at how he could manage to conjure exactly what we were thinking, feeling, and exploring at the time.

"Bob Dylan," by Richard Avedon, 1965

“Bob Dylan,” by Richard Avedon, 1965

“Bessie Smith,” a protégé of Ma Rainey, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936, was one tough cookie, we learn, managing her own vaudeville troupe and single-handedly running off a menacing advance by the Klan. I grew up with a hissing 78 recording of “Taint Nobody’s Bizness if I Do.” In this song you can hear the inspiration for Bonnie Raitt (also featured in the show) and Janis Joplin, who put up half the money for a new headstone for Smith in 1970.

"Bessie Smith," by Carl Van Vechten, 1936

“Bessie Smith,” by Carl Van Vechten, 1936

“Fred Astaire,” by Martin Munkacsi, 1936, with his impeccable line and perfect timing, is almost too cool, entirely lacking in the funky experimentation of, say, the Nicholas Brothers of the same era. And while I’m grousing, I’ll air my biggest complaint about this show: Astaire is the only dancer in it. I’m not including Madonna who, yes, is a great dancer, but she’s many other things as well, and it could be argued, is primarily known as a singer. Where is Martha Graham? Josephine Baker? Gregory Hines?

"Fred Astaire," by Martin Munkacsi, 1936

“Fred Astaire,” by Martin Munkacsi, 1936

The incomparable “Lady Day,” here photographed by Bob Willoughby in 1951, was described by Duke Ellington himself as the “essence of cool.” My father’s record collection included the haunting “Strange Fruit,” which eerily embodies both the horror of a lynching with Day’s own tragic demise.

Shifting gears, we come to another iconic singer, “Frank Sinatra,” by Herman Leonard, 1956. Critic Robert Christgau said of Sinatra that he “turned English into American and American into music.” The “rat pack” appellation originated, we learn, with Lauren Bacall, who, upon seeing Sinatra, Bogart, and cronies, said they looked “like a rat pack.”

"Billie Holiday," by Bob Willoughby, 1951

“Billie Holiday,” by Bob Willoughby, 1951

I’m trying to stick to a “boy girl boy girl” order here, but am finding it difficult—could it be that coolness is a male trait? Nah, take a gander at “Deborah Harry,” of “Blondie” fame, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978. Love that tough girl/pretty girl look, her uncompromising stare, no apologies—she’s not posing—she’s seen it all.

"Frank Sinatra," by Herman Leonard, 1956

“Frank Sinatra,” by Herman Leonard, 1956

I’m reluctant to add Susan Sarandon to my roll call, not because I don’t think she’s cool, but because I’m a bit over-exposed to actors at this point. That’s my other criticism of this otherwise marvelous show: too heavy on show biz. Where is Charles Eames? Not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright? Yes, writers are well-represented (Zora Neal Hurston, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs), but not Zelda and F. Scott, to my mind cultural icons of the first order.

"Deborah Harry," by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978

“Deborah Harry,” by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978

See what I mean? The show will start a debate in your mind, and a conversation with whomever joins you there. Do see it—you’ll meet such emblematically cool figures as Lou Reed, Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Steve McQueen, Lenny Bruce, Jackson Pollock, and Miles Davis. The show is on until September 7, 2014.

And, last but not least, here’s your fearless art blogger herself commenting on “What is cool?” for the BBC:

Wait for it—I’m in the last third of the piece. Fun!