The Jazz Dancer

Danny Buraczeski has choreographed a surprising journey from the coal country of pennsylvania to a successful dance career.

Company dancers past and present will often profess a profound respect for Buraczeski, but they also harbor a bit of fear of the choreographer, who seems to know a million steps. According to Cathy Young, a founding member of Jazzdance who now choreographs independently, "I just wanted to have a program note saying, 'This is really, really hard.' Sometimes I would stand in the wings wondering if I could get through a concert. There is so much mental preparation necessary, it's like running a marathon."

Joanne Horn, a current member of Jazzdance, concurs, describing the continuing difficulty she has learning Buraczeski's quicksilver weight changes. "There are just so many steps. I never cease to be amazed at how his body works," she says.

The range of this physical vocabulary stands as a contradiction to narrow and clichéd preconceptions of jazz dance. Want to make Buraczeski cringe? Just show him jazz hands: that gaudy gesticulation with the open palm and splayed fingers. The razzmatazz that all beginning jazz dancers do. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this or many other show-stopping moves, but the trouble is that many people, dance aficionados and novices alike, make the mistake of summing up jazz with this signature style, dismissing the form as too accessible and, worse yet, plain simple. It's also true that the first images jazz brings to mind are altogether stereotypical: a kicky commercial style with saucy hips and thong leotards. No wonder jazz, a form that boasts a history as complex, controversial, and diverse as ballet, modern, or tap, still suffers from an identity crisis.

"I just made it up, so I never worried that I was copying anybody": Choreographer Danny Buraczeski
Daniel Corrigan
"I just made it up, so I never worried that I was copying anybody": Choreographer Danny Buraczeski

But Buraczeski, a choreographer who has devoted nearly half his career to shaping his personal jazz philosophy, could well banish all those preconceptions to the sequined purgatory where they belong. "MTV and Bob Fosse, that's one aspect of jazz, and frankly it's not an aspect that interests me," says Buraczeski, alluding to the late choreographer whose provocative style appeared in his largely autobiographical film All That Jazz, and more recently in several Broadway shows, including Chicago. "Fosse's work is about seducing the audience. I try to create works that fulfill the need for expression," he continues, warming to his subject. "Jazz dancing is a style, not a technique. People argue with me about this, but I don't care. I say jazz choreographers have always developed individual styles. I've created a style of my own."

Buraczeski's approach also includes an idiosyncratic relationship with music. Although he uses rhythmic compositions from the Thirties and Forties, he also turns to more complex jazz by the likes of Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. "I challenge myself to use music like that," he says. "I don't like to use social dance music. I like the bebop era because it's a little screechy, a little further out there."

Such preferences are the privilege of an independent-minded professional. To win this kind of artistic latitude, Buraczeski honed his craft the way most dancers do--through continual work. After Memphis, he headed for New York City in 1974. There he auditioned for several Broadway shows, but nothing ever came through. After a year teaching in Switzerland, he returned to the Big Apple. "And then bang!" exclaims Buraczeski. "I was ready. I toured in Mame with Angela Lansbury. It was a thrilling, big-scale production, and she was such a big star with a great work ethic. That was when musicals were really dance shows and if you weren't dancing you were changing costume."

The next step for Buraczeski was clearly Broadway, but he needed to sharpen his skills before competing with the gypsies of the Great White Way, the dancers who train tirelessly for the big break. "Jazz dance was a lot of bump and grind in New York at the time," Buraczeski explains, demonstrating some moves in his chair. "It was very commercial. Kick your leg and brush your hair back."

He started working with Theater Dance Collection, changed his name to Danny Laurance for a while, and took a class with teacher-of-choice Betsy Haug. "It was the most challenging jazz class you'll ever take," he says. "I had to go to the back [row], even though I was dancing professionally," he recalls. "I worked my way up to the front and was asked to substitute. The night before, I'd pick out the music, then I'd work on the phrase all day, teach two classes, and start all over again."

Buraczeski's commitment ultimately paid off, and soon he was hired as a swing dancer and later a full-time cast member in Liza Minnelli's The Act, which yielded not only a one-year run and a healthy salary but an appearance on the Tonys and a part on the original cast album. The show was controversial at the time, he says, due to Minnelli's drug use and the frequent cancellations that followed. "But she worked her butt off," he continues. "We were there to show her off, and the choreography was devilish. You had to be on all the time."

Buraczeski chuckles at the memory of the day a group of women from the Mount Carmel Hadassah attended a show. "I warned Liza," he says, "and during the opening number there was a whole row of ladies just waving at me."

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