Burton, Deena

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Deena Burton (1948-2005), an American dancer and expert in Indonesian dance was born in Brooklyn to Arthur and Beatrice Burton. As child and young adult, Burton studied dance with Marjory Mazia, at the Henry Street Settlement, and at the New Dance Group. She went on to study Asian theater at the University of Wisconsin under A. C. Scott, where she first discovered Javanese dance. After graduation, Burton continued to study Indonesian dance, first with Hardjjo Susilo in Hawaii and then with Ben Suharto and Theresa Suharti at the Center for World Music in California.

In 1976, Burton traveled to Java where she studied and researched dance-drama for four years, studying with masters like Sudji, a master of the topeng babakan dance form and Kandeg, a master of the wayang orange dance form. She danced with several Indonesian companies and was a member of the Ratna Budaya Dance Company from 1978-1980, appearing in the works of leading Indonesian choreographers such as Sardono, Endo Suanda, and S. Karjono. Burton's study of Indonesian dance was unique in that she studied a wide variety of dance styles including Monkey style, clown style, Gagah or strong male style, Alusan or refined male style, and the Putri style that was traditionally danced by women. Throughout her career, Burton would remain interested in both the classical Javanese court style of Yogyakarta, and the village oriented mask dance-drama from Cirebon area in West Java.

In addition to studying dance, Burton initiated and organized several projects in Indonesia. She produced traditional village performances for a series of cultural tours for Westerners, and in 1979, she coordinated a video dance documentation project sponsored by the Jakarta Department of Cultural Affairs.

In 1980, Burton moved back to New York City and began performing extensively. In 1981, she choreographed Arabian Nights with Chameleon Theatrix and in 1982 she co-choreographed Red Snow which was directed by Korean artist Du-Yee Change. Additionally, Burton performed with the Asian American Dance Theatre, the Asia Society, Hospital Audiences, and with Gamelan Son of Lion. Burton also founded the Bali-Java Dance Theatre in 1982. The following year, Burton convinced the Indonesian Consulate in New York to allow a Javanese gamelan that had been stored in the consulate's basement since the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair to be used. Initially called the New York Indonesian Consulate Gamelan, the ensemble was renamed Gamelan Kusuma Laras. Burton acted as the administrative director and often performed in the gamelan, playing the bonang panerus.

In 1984 and 1985, Burton co-organized the Artists Inspired by Asia festival, a festival of American performances of Asian music, theater, and dance. In 1986, Burton produced a similar festival focused solely on Indonesian art called Artists Inspired by Indonesia. She also began the process of turning Bali-Java Dance Theater and Gamelan Kusuma Laras into a not-for-profit arts organization, Arts Indonesian, of which she was the director until her death.

In 1984, she met composer Skip La Plante, who would become her husband in 1989. Together they created The Ramayana (1984), a solo dance piece where Burton portrayed a multitude of characters in traditional Javanese dance styles while La Plante played accompanying music. In 1985, Burton restaged Ramayana with a larger cast for the East-West Fusion Theater. Burton and La Plante continued to collaborate with performances of the The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1987), Pak Kandeg's Stor y (1988), Arjuna Wiwaha (1995), and Panji Tales (2000).

During this time, Burton continued her academic work. She graduated with a Master's degree in Arts Administration from Columbia University in 1982. The New York Public Library's Library of the Performing Arts hired Burton, in 1986, to edit ten hours of footage shot in the 1920s of Indonesian court rituals and performances by ethnographer Tassilo Adam. In 1990, Burton enrolled in the Performance Studies program at New York University, where she received her doctorate in 1997, writing her dissertation on the ethnologist Claire Holt.

Claire Holt was a Lativian-born, and Russian-educated American, who lived in New York City in the 1920s and the Dutch East Indies in the 1930s, where she met Margaret Mead and other prominent sociologists and archeologists, including Willem Stuttenheim who became her mentor and lover. Holt returned to the United States to work for government intelligence until she resigned that post in 1954 to take the position of Associate Researcher at Cornell University, a situation she held until her death. Holt's seminal work was Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change, published in 1967.

Burton returned to Indonesia two more times. In 1989, she obtained a Fulbright Grant to bring the edited Adam's films to Indonesia where she screened and presented copies of the finished work to various educational institutions and dignitaries. During this trip, Burton studied dance with Rama Sasminto Marsadawa and gave birth to her son Roan. In 1996, Burton returned to Indonesia to research her dissertation on Holt, as well as perform with the Gamelan Kusuma Laras at the Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival.

Following her graduation from New York University, Burton joined the faculty of Eugene Lang College, teaching courses on Asian theater and dance as well as working with Young Audiences New York, teaching dance workshops at various elementary and grammar schools. Burton died of cancer, in 2005, at the age of 56.

From the guide to the Deena Burton papers, 1927-2005, 1976-2003, (The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Deena Burton papers, 1927-2005, 1976-2003 The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
referencedIn Bali-Java Dance Theater. [Programs] New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Bali-Java Dance Theater. corporateBody
associatedWith Holt, Claire person
Place Name Admin Code Country


Birth 1948

Death 2005



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