The Jazz Dancer

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

When The Act closed, Buraczeski decided to bid adieu to Broadway. "I had no desire to do parts, study voice and acting," he explains. He pulled together some dancers and began to self-produce concerts. At the same time, he started poring over the archives at Lincoln Center's Library for the Performing Arts. There he found the roots of jazz in African-American culture and in Maura Dahn's film The Spirit Moves, which documented the Cakewalks, Charlestons, and other classic moves of the 20th Century.

As Buraczeski gained more experience choreographing, he began to tour around the nation with his New York-based troupe, visiting the American Dance Festival, Jacob's Pillow, and eventually Zoe Sealy's Minnesota Jazz Dance Company, which later merged with Zenon, now located in the Hennepin Center for the Arts. Linda Andrews, Zenon's director, enticed Buraczeski to move to the Twin Cities in 1988; after serving two years as resident choreographer, he left to start Jazzdance in 1992, a risky move that nonetheless gave him the opportunity to shape his own vision after years of watching and waiting.

Works like his signature "Swing Concerto," set to Benny Goodman and klezmer music, and his original Jack Cole Project, dedicated to the silver screen's most mischievous choreographer, gave Buraczeski a national rep and earned him a place on the New York dance stage, this time off-Broadway. According to Young, such efforts saw Buraczeski in the process of "helping to define what concert jazz dance is all about."

"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

 

Danny Buraczeski's current program is an amalgam of the choreographer's accumulated experiences. The piece titled "Ezekiel's Wheel," a reflection on the life of James Baldwin, is perhaps no more unusual than the idea of a coal miner's son landing on a Broadway stage next to Liza Minnelli. While explaining the piece, Buraczeski points to a bookshelf filled with photo histories of Baldwin's era by Charles Moore and Danny Lyon.

"Baldwin connected me with a part of America that I didn't know anything about," he says, remembering that he first read the author while living in Europe. "He taught us to look at someone, to hold their hand, and to say, I'm your brother, I'm your sister. He also challenged white America to look at themselves honestly. He's like a prophet to me."

Reflecting on the Old Testament source of the dance's title--two interlocking wheels propelled by faith and God, respectively--Buraczeski continues: "Baldwin says when you've experienced true joy you can take on more pain when it comes to you. I feel like I'm saying thank you to him for his life, courage, and work."

The local premiere of the piece includes a live performance by composer Philip Hamilton, and a debut section that involves a kind of respite before proceeding to an elegiac ending. "Philip just sent me the music for [this section] a week and a half ago. I wept when I heard it. Now, emotionally, the work has its whole path."

The concert also includes a collaboration with composer Sir Roland Hanna, "Among These Cares," which is only the second dance work commissioned by the Library of Congress in its history (the first being Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring"). "It's such a feminist piece," says Buraczeski. "It's about my mother and her sisters, who struggled in a small coal-mining town, making their families work and sharing experiences."

Finally, on a lighter note, the new "Twenty-First Century Stride," set to music by Peter Jones, is a nod to the millennium, encompassing an array of 20th-century music and movement, including ragtime, the Charleston, and a lush, even cathartic rondo where Buraczeski dances with nearly every member of the company.

"My perspective has taken shape through years of uncertainty and wondering whether I should even be doing this," muses Buraczeski placidly, perhaps ready for a brief afternoon nap. "But I've seen the world, I've been in every situation imaginable. I do, however, refuse to answer the question of what jazz dance is; all I can say is listen and look, and that's what it means to me."

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