A Graceful Progression

Thanks for the memories: A high-flying farewell for the prolific Buraczeski
Eric Saulitis

The second-floor dance studio in the Hennepin Center for the Arts is muggy on this Sunday afternoon, the air heavy with the exertion of nearly 20 dancers rehearsing some 13 works. In between turns on the floor, members of the group work out steps in the corner, gulp water, nibble snacks, shake out tired muscles, yell encouragement when a fellow dancer nails a groove, or simply bob their heads to the beat. The choreographer of this "chaos," as he laughingly calls it, is Danny Buraczeski, the founder and artistic director of Jazzdance. Buraczeski has spent over 15 years in the Twin Cities leading his company in the joyful pursuit of rhythm and the redefinition of jazz dance. All that will change after this weekend, when the troupe has its final curtain call at the Southern Theater. Buraczeski has accepted a teaching position in the dance division at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and this summer he'll head down Highway 35 to start a new chapter in his life.

Buraczeski is leaving Minnesota with something to remember him by--specifically a dazzling and dizzying revue of his favorite pieces. The 56-year-old Pennsylvania native, who performed on Broadway with the likes of Angela Lansbury and Liza Minnelli before heading to the Midwest, has earned a national rep as a jazz innovator who also reveres the history of the form. Three generations of the Jazzdance family--including two very pregnant members--will take the stage over the course of the run, now entering its second week. "It so warms my heart," says Buraczeski when asked about the willingness of former Jazzdance performers to share the stage one more time. "It's so beautiful just to have them back here again. The veterans share with the younger dancers. Dancing is in the body, and the most authentic way of passing it on is to see it on another body, not just on videotape."

Jazzdance fans old and new will enjoy the opportunity to see so many Buraczeski works on one program. The evening wends its way through solos for the artist, dynamic group works set to composers influenced by jazz (including Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, and Astor Piazzolla), a cheeky salute to Judy Garland, a haunting collaboration between vocalist Philip Hamilton and the recorded words of James Baldwin, and Buraczeski's signature "Swing Concerto," set to music by Benny Goodman.

The collection speaks to the dancemaker's curiosity as much as his virtuosity--instead of settling for standard jazz movement vocabulary and musical accompaniment, Buraczeski has always sought new ways to transform traditional expectations and transcend the glitzy Bob Fosse show-stopping formula. He credits SMU with being "adventurous" and is thankful that the school is taking a chance by hiring him. Under the direction of dance historian Shelley Berg, the department has developed a considerable reputation for dance reconstruction, also one of Buraczeski's interests. In his Jack Cole project, for example, he revived the works of one of Hollywood's most inventive choreographers.

Still, saying goodbye is never easy. While Buraczeski is adamant that he won't miss the constant pressures associated with running a company--always looking for funding, crunching unforgiving budgets, worrying about the next gig or commission--it's clear he'll have many good memories. Throughout this rehearsal, he often jumps up from his chair with excitement, swinging his arms like an orchestra conductor, counting off beats, offering praise, and reminding the dancers to breathe, particularly during the high-energy "Swing Concerto." "I don't want to just have it end," concludes Buraczeski after the rehearsal, as he prepares to pack up piles of costumes and props. "I want to celebrate all of the dancers. I made my best work while I was here. This is my way of saying thanks to the community."

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