The Jazz Dancer

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

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.

"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

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.

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.

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."

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."

 

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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