The trick is in the shimmy, the slide, the stride in soft soles across the smooth wood floor. For the move to work, the dancers must drop a hand across one another's shoulders and then move quickly on, driven by some unspoken purpose, as if they've got someplace to go beyond the stage. Lightweight jazz shoes cover their feet, and the sweat glistening on their brows betrays the physical demands of trying to make something quite difficult look easy. Slow drags and hard bops take a lot of practice. "The most important thing about jazz dance," says choreographer Danny Buraczeski, "is that you get to be part of a tradition. You make up steps like in tap-dancing that are so great they are named for the person who did them. Then a young person changes it and makes it personal"--and the cycle begins again.
On a blustery Saturday morning, Danny Buraczeski settles into a kitchen chair in his cozy south Minneapolis apartment with a cup of tea by his side. Casual yet well put together in a button-down shirt and jeans, he comes off as classy. There's a bit of Gene Kelly, perhaps, in his charm; there's also the hint of a New York accent. A little stiff and sore from long hours in the studio rehearsing for this weekend's concert of his Jazzdance company at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, Buraczeski still moves around his home in a kind of stroll, shoulders back and head held high, as if propelled by an inner rhythm. His extensive collection of records and dance memorabilia is safely in storage, and the sunny, uncluttered space provides a good place to reflect while he prepares for the next act.
First he'll have to get past the trio of dances in his upcoming show, all performed to live music for the first time in the seven-year-old company's history. The compositions seem to echo three concepts embraced by James Baldwin, whom Buraczeski celebrated in his critically acclaimed piece "Ezekiel's Wheel," which is also on this bill: recognition, responsibility, and redemption. "Baldwin's three R's," as Buraczeski has come to nickname them, only revealed themselves to the choreographer in recent years as he studied the author's works, but these values were present in the artist's blue-collar childhood as well.
Born in the small northeastern Pennsylvania town of Mount Carmel, where his father mined for coal until the reserves were spent and his mother worked for the tax collector, Buraczeski never thought much about dance, save for what he saw on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was at Bucknell College in nearby Lewisburg, site of the federal prison where his older brother works today, that Buraczeski discovered he had dance potential.
"The girl I sat next to in choir was in modern-dance club and she kept bugging me to join," he recalls. "They needed someone to do lifts, but really they just were running around with these capes and parachutes. I thought it was silly." Not to be dissuaded, the same friend kept after Buraczeski and invited him to class with Joan Moyer, a ballet mistress who traveled the region teaching technique. "That one afternoon just changed everything," he says. "She put on a scratchy old record, and I fell in love," he continues, pulling out a photo of his early mentor from one of the many notebooks he keeps filled with inspiring images and memories. Soon Buraczeski was hitchhiking the eight miles to Moyer's studio as often as possible. "She taught character, pointe, baton. She's still doing it, and she still has the most incredible legs!" he laughs, adding, "When I visit my family, I go visit her, even though my mother still calls her a witch for ruining my life!"
After graduation, Buraczeski earned a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia, and by 1971 he had enjoyed his professional stage debut as a dancing bear in a Nutcracker production. A year later he joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, a move that ultimately changed the direction of his career.
"The director of the program told me that I worked harder than everybody and that I had talent for movement but ballet was not for me," says Buraczeski of what was then a devastating blow. Set adrift, he landed in Memphis, where he started teaching jazz dance, undeterred by the fact that he had never actually done it before. "I just made it up, so I never worried that I was copying anybody," he reflects. Buraczeski's first jazz ballet, a tribute to Memphis composers, was set to music by W.C. Handy and Elvis Presley, and to Isaac Hayes's "Shaft."
In many ways Buraczeski's naive beginning in the ways of jazz dancing served him well. Rather than learning the limits of the form, the dancer taught himself its possibilities from scratch. This is still evident today: During rehearsals and production, the eight members of Jazzdance learn that this particular art has everything to do with seamless journeys across the stage, with the arms, legs, hips, torso, and head working in harmony--a far cry from the more traditional style where an overdependence on isolation exercises tends to dissect the body into parts. It is an impression of luxury and physical effortlessness that defines Buraczeski's work, but in reality none of this stuff comes easily.