September 03, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


A Moving Force 

Choreographer Chris Burnside presents his first full-length concert in 12 years.

Simply titled “An Evening of Dance,” Burnside performs with 16 dancers in a program that includes six works, two of which are premieres. For those familiar with his style, expect the same humor, candor and daring that set him apart and have earned him national recognition.

“I challenge myself and challenge the viewer. I want to feel like I’m having a conversation with someone sitting in their seats,” he says. “I like to have people think, and I’m interested in presenting work that asks questions.”

The first premiere is “M,” inspired by the life and paintings of 16th-century artist Caravaggio. The central figure in the work is a nude male, representing the artist’s muse. Burnside wanted to capture the essence of sculpture in the choreography, while delving into Caravaggio’s turbulent and often vitriolic life. “He lived in an incredibly violent time, as we live in now, nothing changes,” he says. As for a central theme, Burnside he sees the work as a reflection on the human condition and its shortcomings: “We’ve still not found as a species that populates the whole planet how to get along.”

The second premiere is “Two on a Party,” based on a Tennessee Williams’ short story about a straight woman and a gay man who help each other pick up unsuspecting guys in a bar. “They’re less predatory when they are working together than in isolation,” Burnside says of his cruising duo. The swing-style choreography reflects the humorous scenario and is set to an original score by Marty McCavitt. The rest of the program features “Andante,” a trio set to a Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2,” and two other works created between 1995 and 2001.

With two premieres that deal frankly with homosexuality, Burnside is not afraid to reveal aspects of his personal life in his work — he has been in a committed relationship for the last 15 years. Yet he says he’s not interested in preaching about sexuality. Rather, he hopes to engage audiences with new ideas. “It’s really important that someone have a specific point of view, but then take that point of view to get at some universal point of view. Generally, I try to reach some common, universal perspective in the work.”

Though it’s his first concert since 1991, it’s unfair to call it a homecoming. Burnside has been around choreographing and performing solo work. He headed Virginia Commonwealth University’s dance department in the mid-’90s, where he has taught since 1985. During his tenure at VCU, the dance program has grown significantly. Some high points were creating the guest artist program and overseeing the renovations of the Grace Street Theater as the university’s chief performing venue. “Chris was really responsible for galvanizing the program and defining its mission,” says Martha Curtis, current chair of VCU dance. “He created an environment of professionalism and set the model for keeping that environment vital.”

As a progressive artist and administrator, Burnside is a compass for Richmond’s arts community. He points to the planned Performing Arts Center as a hope for revitalizing downtown and is happy to report that the Virginia Commission for the Arts has reinstated its choreographer fellowship this year. Yet he bemoans the financial drought in arts funding and the fact that many talented artists and organizations survive on paltry funds, if at all.

“Arts and culture are low on our country’s priority list. We don’t put money into that,” he says. “Yet an artist’s voice is more important than ever — they are the standard-bearers for their generation.”

And as a good standard-bearer, he makes opportunities for others. Burnside has organized a large ensemble for his current venture, giving work to former students and local dancers. He believes this concert is a culmination for him — of what, exactly, he doesn’t know. But he says he wants audiences to see “hopefully that I’ve grown and matured. I’ve been on this planet for 55 years, and I hope that’s obvious in the work.” S

Chris Burnside and Dancers present “An Evening of Dance” at the Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St., Sept. 5, 6, 12 and 13. All shows at 8 p.m., $15. 828-2020. Two additional shows are scheduled Sept. 4 to benefit the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth, and Sept. 11 to benefit the Hand Workshop Art Center.

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