I have been dancing now for some 50 years, professionally about 41. I found a place for myself in the world by exploring the creative potential of jazz dancing in concert form. Choreography, teaching and dancing have been my life’s work.
I was not born in a trunk, I was born in a small coal mining town in Northeast Pennsylvania called Mount Carmel. There is a passage in Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit where she writes that her mother “built her”, step by step, for a creative life – piano, baton, ballet, toe, flamenco, drama, elocution, painting, viola, violin, shorthand, German and French. I think I “built” myself, following some undefined passion for self-discovery. Of course, many generous people inspired and helped along the way, but I am hard pressed to remember anyone saying “This is what you should do, you are great at this. I see a wonderful future for you in the arts.” I took one step at a time, taking many unexpected paths and lots of risks, I might add. In thinking about it now, it took a lot of courage.
My love of music has no beginning and no end. I can’t imagine a world or a life without it. There were definitely some signs, indicators that I would embrace a creative life. I believe I was the first person in Mount Carmel to own a Barbra Streisand record. I practically wore out the Judy Garland: Live at Carnegie Hall LP. I ran home from junior high school to catch all of American Bandstand. We had an archway separating the two downstairs rooms in our house. One of the pillars was my dancing partner. I loved to social dance and was runner-up for Best Dancer in my 1966 graduating class. I was, however, voted Most Likely to Succeed.
I loved musical theater and sang in the Glee Club. My father took me to New York in 1965 to see Barbra Steisand in Funny Girl – unforgettable. We also saw the first run of The Sound of Music. Tickets were reserved, bought in advance. This was pre- Internet. I sent away for the tickets and paid with a money order. We were in the third row of the Criterion Theater on Broadway.
I studied voice with Peggy Mervine. She ran the Glee Club and directed the musicals at the high school. I also studied with an opera singer in Ashland, PA. I cannot remember her name (Ruth ?) but clearly remember a solarium with a baby grand piano where the lessons were given. I sang “No Man Is An Island” at our high school Commencement. I never had a legit voice, but I was on pitch and I was loud. While still in high school, I became obsessed with the movie version of the musical Can-Can. It played for two weeks at the Victoria Theater. I saw it multiple times. Buying the tickets became embarrassing. I was a “friend of Dorothy”.
To the left is a great collage of images of downtown Mount Carmel. It is the latest Bucknell Magazine (October 2016). Bucknell has a new community engagement project trying to help revitalize some depressed small towns in the Anthracite Coal Region. Mount Carmel is one of them. Shamokin and Mahanoy City are two others. My brother lived in Shamokin after he got married. He and his wife Marian raised their three children there. My cousin Diane still lives in Shamokin. I had relatives on my father’s side who lived in Mahanoy City. Students go a few times each semester and work with local officials and community partners including church leaders. It is such a great idea, bringing back a bit of hope and optimism.
Attending Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, I was working towards my degree in Japanese Studies (planned on the Foreign Service). Complaining to my friend and choir mate Tanya about being too sedentary, she suggested I go with her to a ballet class. A woman named Joan Moyer came to Lewisburg one day a week and gave classes in a hall above a hardware store downtown. I went. My life changed in an instant. Joan was charismatic and inspiring. She had the most beautiful legs and feet I had ever seen and a gap in the center of the top row of teeth! She put on a scratchy ballet class record and I knew that afternoon I wanted to dance professionally and forever. I would be a prince. Her school was in Sunbury about twelve miles away. I started to hitch-hike after class. I had to make up for lost time.
In retrospect, I can’t say I got the best training at the Moyer Institute of Dance, but I got inspiration, excitement and a chance to perform long before I was ready. Joan was very involved in the community and while not doing the traditional recital, gave performances in many of the schools in the area. I performed in many of them, ballet character and jazz. I actually choreographed “Aquarius”. One highlight was playing Jesus in an Easter pageant at Susquehanna University – Divine!
A few other things while at Bucknell – I met Trevor Lewis there.
He was a Theater/Chemistry major. We were both members of the Modern Dance Club. It was part of the PE Department. Trevor is my closest friend in the world to this day. We came out to each other in his parents’ kitchen at about two in the morning. Trevor worked in summer stock and he sometimes borrowed his dad’s car so we could drive to New York for the weekend. We left after classes and got there in the middle of the night. We stayed with Darwin Knight and Danny Guerrero in Brooklyn Heights. Darwin was a director and Danny was a dancer. It was exciting and stimulating, a picture of a world both Trevor and I were excited to be a part of after graduation. Much later, In New York, Trevor was huge supporter of the dance company and served on the Board for a time.
Bucknell had a January Plan. A student could spend the month between semesters doing something outside the university and get credit. I went to New York and studied at the Joffrey Ballet, at the time, located on the southeast corner of 6th Avenue in the Village. I stayed with a retired librarian named Sophie Aksel about as far out in Brooklyn as you could get. We had met the summer before, studying in Japan. She and her best friend Ivy came to my graduation in 1970. Sophie was most kind to me.
I was the proverbial “fish out of water” at the Joffrey. I did get to study with and be ignored by some great teachers. Bill Griffith taught men’s class in big engineer boots gave 64 count grand plies, pirouettes and tour en lair from that same grand pile. Meredith Bayliss was very intense. She was not into me at all. One class, I was doing an arch while in tendu back and she barked, “What are you trying to do, break your toe?”
This would not be the first time I put myself in a professional situation that was beyond me, to say the least. I was awarded a full summer scholarship to continue my Japanese Studies at Stanford University. At the same time I was getting to the point of making a full-fledged commitment to dance. I needed exposure to a real professional environment. I applied for and was awarded a work-study scholarship at the American Dance Festival in New London, CT. I returned the Stanford scholarship and got on the train to New London. I worked in the kitchen ( a” theme” that would appear again in New York). The festival was amazing. I had ballet with James Clouser – wonderful, Graham with June Lewis and Richard Kutch – a nightmare for my tight body. The original Ailey Company was in residence. Talley Beatty taught a level I could not take but I watched and watched him have intense fights during class with his Scandinavian lover. The Limon Company performed with Jose Limon dancing. I was in a chair dance choreographed by Yvonne Rainer and was in a famous dance out in a field over 24 hours created by an emerging Twyla Tharp – who knew? It was the summer of the first moon landing, July 1969. It was transformative.
One last thing at Bucknell – a big thing. They had a college radio station and one night a week, it was all jazz. I had never heard music like this – I remember it being Brubeck. I could not sit still, went over to the station, and the DJ agreed to get me started learning about the music. I began to develop a personal collection. It is a voyage of discovery that continues.
Off to the races! After graduation, I headed to Philadelphia. I found a cheap apartment on Broad Street -awful – it was an oven. You could sit on the toilet and cook dinner at the same time. My parents and my Aunt Bertha (my mother’s sister) came and helped clean the place as only they knew how to do. Somehow, I got a scholarship at the Pennsylvania Ballet. In 1970, the studios were downtown. Open classes started around 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon. I was fortunate to study with a ballet legend, Edward Caton, a Russian born American dancer, teacher and choreographer. He was born in 1900 in St. Petersburg where his father managed the Czar’s stables. His class was all about music, the muscles, he said, develop differently when you work on the downbeat as opposed to the upbeat. He was one of Anna Pavlova’s partners. His apartment was a shrine to her. I always put myself at the back of the class. Mr. Caton would often bring me forward because of my musicality. He also taught the most exhilarating character class sitting in a chair and often ate raw garlic in class to thin his blood. It was, one could say, a multi-sensory experience. He was a gift.
I found a great job working at the Philadelphia Community College. It was also downtown.
I worked at the open front desk with two memorable characters, an older cranky and caustic gay man and a gorgeous young woman from South Philly with an authentic South Philly twang. I was able to leave just after 4 in order to make my first class. The job allowed me to rent a great ground floor studio on or near Spruce Street, close to Rittenhouse Square. It felt great being able to pay for it myself.
I made my professional debut with the Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music in the Nutcracker dancing the part of the Bear. I was grounded even then! I danced with a small regional company called the Tri-State Ballet directed by Florence Geis. She was, unbelievably, from Ashland, PA. Ashland was where I had my voice lessons with the opera singer! I also met an interesting woman named Debbie Barr (the teenage star!). She was also studying at the ballet. We became great friends and adopted a stray dog and named him Mick (Jagger). When we left Philly, I took him home to my family. My uncle Joe, who lived next door, fell in love with Mick. They were inseparable and I am certain that Mick extended my uncle’s life by years.
At some point, I felt the need to move on. I had learned a lot and my dancing developed and deepened. Hearing about a great training program at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada, I was on a plane. My first residence in Winnipeg was at the YMCA. It was OK. At the ballet, there were two schools in the same building. The first floor housed a school that taught RAD, the Royal Academy of Dancing method, run by a very interesting woman named Jean Makenzie. The professional company was upstairs and the ballet technique was serious Russian – Vaganova. The two were like night and day. Again, I don’t remember (maybe this is something I choose to forget) but I must have asked if I might be a part of their training program. David Maroni was the director and I started. It was all day beginning with a two hour ballet class, a break and then pas de deux. We were all assigned a partner, learning all the major duets, Corsaire, Black Swan, White Swan, Don Q, Peasant Pas from Giselle – that was my favorite. My partner tolerated me. She obviously thought I had no business being there. I learned so much.
We often got to watch the company rehearse and it was magical. They had great Rep – Balanchine, Agnes DeMille, John Neumeier, Brian McDonald. I also watched other classes when I could, pointe, variations and company men’s class. As Agnes Gooch in Mame would say, “I was a sponge!”. I met other dancers and four of us shared an apartment. After that arrangement came to an end, I was offered a room in a huge house owned by three gay men. Don’t remember how that came to be. The house was a ways from the school and I had to take a bus to get there. Winter was intense. There is a corner in downtown Winnipeg which is apparently the coldest spot in North America. The house was warm and welcoming. I felt cared for and safe which was what I needed. Next comes a major game changer, something that propelled me on to the next phase of this adventure.
David Maroni, director of the apprentice program called me into the dressing room one day. I worked harder than anyone in the program, he said, but a career in ballet was not going to happen. I had a gift for movement and music but needed to move on and find a different path in dance. It was a devastating conversation but much appreciated in retrospect. I was not going to be a prince after all. What would I do?
Another dancer in the program, Jeff Stuart, from Memphis, TN suggested I go and teach at the Memphis Ballet Academy and figure things out. It was a plan. I went. The director of the school and Creative Arts Ballet Association was George Latimer. George was originally from Oakland and traveled to Memphis to be assistant director of the Memphis Civic Ballet. He soon became disenchanted with the politics and mindset of the old South and created an arts organization that represented a philosophy that dance was for everyone. It was called Ballet South, at the time a controversial company.
My time in Memphis was, to quote Charles Dickens, “the best of times and the worst of times”. It was the best of times because of the wonderful, interesting and talented people I met, Becky Bowden, Kris Hanley, Alex Jankowski, and Carrie Jeanne Wilson. It was a time when I felt free to explore my creative side. I took my first serious steps as a choreographer and teacher. Watching all those classes in Winnipeg paid off. I taught ballet, pointe, character, partnering and, yes, jazz. At this point, I had no formal jazz dance training. My discovery of jazz music in college served me well. I picked out music I loved from my collection and just made up a class. It was liberating.
Becky Bowden was so special. She later moved to New York and was in the first concert I did – amazing woman. Becky was like a colt. Like me, she had a body that needed to be pushed beyond belief in order to do the ballet “stuff”. She worked harder than anyone and punished her feet so they would point better and allow her to do pointe work. She loved music and loved to dance. We were a match made in heaven.
I lived in three different places in Memphis. My favorite was on Central Avenue. It was old, historic and beautifully Southern. It had French doors leading into the bedroom and on to a wrought iron balcony in the back. I had no car and got where I needed to be on the bus. Sometimes, people would pick me up.
The worst part of this time was George Latimer’s problems with finances. I often had to fight to get paid for work I had done and there were a few paychecks that bounced. It was stressful and unprofessional. George was, however, a very good ballet choreographer and taught the best exercise class I have ever seen.
There were annual performances at the Music Hall downtown, a spralling, big and beautiful theater. We also did performances in a theater at a university. The first dance I choreographed was La Fete, set to some sunny Vivaldi.
Becky was the lead. It turned out well and I wanted to do more. I met a wonderful costume designer named Kris Hanley. He worked primarily for the Memphis Opera but ballet was his first love. He made me the most beautiful prince costume for Black Swan. The construction was impeccable .The sleeves in black velvet were built on a muslin base. You put that on first then the rest of the jeweled top. It gave the arms complete freedom. I was a prince at last! I set the pas de deux and danced it with a powerful dancer, Carrie Jeanne Wilson –
phenomenal technique, gorgeous legs and feet. We performed the pas a number of times including once at the Memphis State Fair.
Alex Jankowski, from Tom’s River, NJ, was a graduate of the Memphis Art Institute. He had a small studio and painted signs to make a living and support his art. We met at the studio and schemed up some projects the wildest of which was called PAX. It was to be a medieval pageant performed outdoors at the Art Institute – a “happening”. It was the early 70’s after all. We wanted banners. Alex found out that an old department store downtown was scheduled for demolition. We drove there in the middle of the night in a pick-up truck and took all the street level awnings. We used them to make the banners. It was such a great and crazy idea. Even crazier, we didn’t get caught!
PAX was wonderful. It involved everyone in the company. If we were in Haight Ashbury, it would have made sense. In Memphis it was radical. The bulk of the score was Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. I also used a section of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and some Beatles songs – Eleanor Rigby was one. Kris Hanley did the simple costumes. Alex, Kris and I thought we were the new Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. We had lots of plans and projects. It was so stimulating. Having dreams is such a good thing.
While in Memphis, I created my first official Jazz Dance. It was called The Memphis Trilogy. Memphis is a big music town. The first section was a Blues with music by W.C.Handy, considered one of the “fathers” of the Blues. Beale Street was downtown. The middle section was, of course, Elvis Presley. This photo is of Becky and me in front of Graceland. The ballerina is Karen Turner. The final section was Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. We wore bell-bottomed one piece jumpsuits. This article is dated June 30, 1972, two years after I graduated from Bucknell. That means Pennsylvania Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Memphis where I choreographed a ballet, a happening and my first jazz dance – amazing.The financial uncertainty in Memphis became untenable. I needed to move on. I decided to take a stab at New York City. How did I get there? No idea.
BLUR – My first try in New York is a blur. I need to find out how to access this time more accurately, 1973-74. I do know that I met my first boyfriend, Richard Sabellico, during this period. Richard was a musical theater maven, lots of talent and lots of drive. He helped me get good head shots, a good voice teacher and convinced me to change my name to Danny Laurence – yes, Danny Laurence. Look left. Do I look like a Danny Laurence?
I “auditioned” for and got a job at one of New York’s first discotheques – Le Jardin. It was owned by John Addison and was located in the basement of the Diplomat Hotel, 110 West 43rd Street. The audition was in the penthouse. I had to parade around in a basketball uniform. I got the job. It was an eye-opener. I was basically serving drinks and needed to have a good relationship with the bar tender. There were huge pillows and bowls of fruit. Bette Midler was there once as well as Diana Ross and Gloria Gaynor. I remember taking the subway back to 87th Street at 5 in the morning. Somehow I felt safe – an education.
I met Bonnie Hellman doing a production of The Boyfriend that Richard Sabelico directed. She was a wonderful young character actress. When Richard and I broke up, I moved in with Bonnie for a while on Amsterdam between 83rd and 84th. I then sublet a railroad apartment in Hell’s Kitchen somewhere in the low 40’s between 8th and 9th Avenues.
At this time, I was studying ballet with Igor Schwezoff at the Eglevsky studios on 7th Avenue. Mr. Schwezoff was born in St.Petersburg and studied at the Leningrad choreographic school. He was ballet master for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. The class was very advanced and very difficult. He smoked the entire time and never counted anything. It was all about phrasing. His adagios were mystical. He liked me and helped me.
I met a wonderful young woman in his class, Ann Moser. We developed a successful dancing partnership at Long Island Ballet Theater, which was in Queens (go figure). It was directed by a dynamic woman, Sallie Hammond. We danced both the Snow pas de deux and Arabian in the Nutcracker. In the spring, we danced Black Swan. I actually still had and wore the Black velvet prince top that Kris Hanley made for me in Memphis. Ann and I were dancing partners and great friends. I
learned a great deal from her. The depth of her love for dance sustained all those around her. Ann gave me a signed copy of Mr. Schwezoff’s autobiography, Russian Somersault. I still have it.
I was studying Limon at Clark Center on 8th Avenue with Lenore Latimer. It was a wonderful class. If jazz had not been my calling, Limon would have been. It felt so right on my body and there was so much swing and breath in it. Swing is swing!
I studied tap with Bob Audy at Showcase Studios. It was in this period that I found Betsy Haug, setting me on an irrevocable path to jazz dance!
I was looking for a jazz class. Nothing I had taken inspired me. Someone suggested Betsy, saying it was the hardest class in New York. She was teaching at Ron Forella’s studio in the theater district somewhere in the mid-40’s east of 7th Avenue. I took one look and was hooked. I had never seen anyone move that way. I wanted to dance like that. The class was sweaty, physical and incredibly rhythmic. The movement vocabulary was like nothing I had ever seen. I got a work study scholarship, cleaning the studio and all the sweaty mirrors each day before Mr. Schwezoff’s class. I also had an evening job, selling candy, coffee and juice on the top balcony at Carnegie Hall – great, great job. I saw and heard amazing performances including Maria Callas on her final concert tour.
Betsy’s class was always packed. There were lots of interesting people. Frank Davis danced in Hollywood and with Judy Garland as one of her “Boyfriends”. He became the first president of the dance company’s board and also made costumes and changed gels at the beginning.
We are the best of friends to this day. He is an inspiration. I always stay with Frank when I go to New York.
Gayle Pierson was Betsy’s assistant. Peggy Haug was Betsy’s sister. Lee Mathis was the most beautiful and sexy man. We had a brief and memorable fling. Liz Thompson worked at the desk and later became the director of Jacob’s Pillow. There were lots of Broadway dancers in the mix. I started in the back and worked my way to the front. It was the best class – using LP’s to teach – yikes. Dance work was elusive. I auditioned for and got a job in the opera ballet of the Stadt Theater in St. Gallen, Switzerland. I took it.
The theater in Switzerland hired an American choreographer, Joel Schnee to bring in a more diverse and contemporary perspective. He hired five American dancers, two from Sweden and one from Italy. There were dancers working in the theater that he kept on, one from South Africa, two from England and two Swiss artists. I can’t imagine a more interesting group. In addition to two ballet evenings a year, we danced in the operas, operettas and musicals. We did both Annie Get Your Gun and My Fair Lady in German. Joel was ballet master and choreographer. He taught the morning ballet class. Mary Price Boday taught Graham and Crister Reveny from Sweden taught Luigi. It was my first exposure to that technique. I also taught jazz of my own making.
Joel was an interesting albeit frustrating choreographer. Most often he prepared only in his head and we slogged it out. He was, I thought, a bit insecure. He was intense and at times unpleasant with the dancers, some more than others. I moved into an apartment, actually a room, in a great old building about a block and a half from the theater. It was very “Cabaret”. There were three rooms on our floor with a shared kitchen and bath. My room was on the right. Gerry Moreno, another American was on the left. The room in the middle was rented by Vera Schweiger. She was a paid member of the theater chorus and aspiring opera singer. I studied German seriously and spoke quite well by the time I moved back to New York a year and a half later.
Zurich was about a 40 minute train ride – a beautiful and famous old city. I went often. There a great bookstore with an extensive English language section. The great psychotherapist Carl Jung was from Zurich – the collective unconscious, among other ideas were his. I read many of his works. They struck a chord. As I became more homesick for the states and New York, I picked up Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin, so moving, an America I knew nothing about. This was 1974. Who knew that I would create a signature work, Ezekiel’s Wheel, a tribute to James Baldwin twenty-five years later.
St. Gallen is a beautiful small city. I got in the habit of going to the open air market almost every day, a habit I maintain with grocery shopping to this day. I convinced the meat market to make ground beef so I could make Sloppy Joe’s. I made them for an opening night party at our “house”. Guess we got too loud. Someone called the polizei. Luckily one of the German actors convinced them not to give us an official citation – no more parties.
There is a huge grocery store in St. Gallen called the Migros. They were in every city in Switzerland. Their by-laws required them to give a certain percentage of the profits back to the community. Years later, 1988 or 1989, JAZZDANCE was selected to be part of an international dance festival, touring to eight cities in ten days.
I became good friends with Doris Haudenschild. She was a community member of the chorus and worked at a record store called the HUG. I got some great jazz for my classes there. If you were interested in something, you would take it into a sound proof booth and listen before your purchase.
I actually climbed a small Alp while I worked in the theater. My friend Walter Wild was the guide. He looked a lot like Harry Potter before there was a Harry Potter. Most important in mountain climbing is that you don’t rush. If you hurry in any way, you probably won’t make it to the top. Everything was green until you got to the tree line. There were lots of cows just below the tree line. Apparently the thin air makes for the best milk. We made it to the top, rested and came down much more quickly on the other side.
At some point, I was asked to choreograph a suite of dances from West Side Story for a theater gala. It was very successful and lead to my being asked back for the next season as a dancer and an assistant to Joel. I said yes. Over the summer, I did lots of traveling, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Cologne, Hamburg, and Heidelberg among others. It was fantastic.
It became fairly evident early into the new season that things with Joel would not be any better. They actually got worse. My new position was also a foot in the door to a career choreographing in the European theater circuit. I was really homesick for the states and asked that I be let go from my contract. The theater was not happy and made it very difficult. I spent a lot of time in local government offices filling out lots of paperwork. It finally came together and I was able to board a plane for New York. I definitely paid for the ticket myself this time.
I sublet Richard Sabellico’s apartment on West 87th Street. He was on tour. I was auditioning as much as I could. I got a job with an amazing group of people – a choreographic collective called The Theatre Dance Collection. Lynn Taylor Corbett, Rodney Griffin, Lynn Simonson, Cindy Riffle, Jaclyn Villamil, Don Lopez and Audrey Ross. All of them except Audrey and Don were choreographers. They were great role models. How they worked and treated each other was a guide for me when I started my own company. Many of them had musical theater in their background and they told me to keep auditioning. If I got into a show, I would always be welcomed back. They rehearsed at Morelli Studios on the corner of 6th & 14th Streets. These were Merce Cunningham’s original rehearsal studios. It was two floors, a bit dingy but also magical with great creative energy. Lynn Simonson taught jazz there and Nancy Mikota ballet. Judith Liegner of Liegner Management was the Theater Dance Collection’s booking agent. They did a decent amount of touring, residencies that included teaching and performing. The company also offered an original children’s musical, Harlequin. Harlequin was played by Les Johnson, a singer who could dance. We met, moved in together into a small one bedroom in Chelsea, 307 West 20th Street. We lived there until the summer of 1989. Les an I have been partners now for forty years. We actually got married on June 26 – in Texas even. Who would have thought!
The photo to the left is a Theatre Dance Collection rehearsal, on tour in Colorado, I think. Anne Marie Hackett, left. me and Cathy McCann, right. Don Lopez is the image in the mirror. Ann Marie also danced with Joyce Tristler and Cathy danced with Paul Taylor for years – great people.
The back studio at Morelli’s, behind the sign-in desk converted into a black box performance space. Theater Dance Collection did all of their New York Seasons there. It was a very eclectic group, techniques all over the map. It was crucial since the choreographers work in such radically different styles and aesthetics. Rodney danced with Graham, Lynn Simonson was a phenomenal performer and a great paradox, a great performer who did not like to perform. Lynne Taylor Corbett had musical theater roots. I was fortunate to help create a role in her Spy in the House of Love, based upon a novel by Anais Nin.
Her work had an emotional perspective. She was interested in people and characters. Jackie Villamil made ballet in bare feet. The woman in front is Diana Haight and that is Lynn behind her. Rodney had great ideas, great movement invention and a wicked sense of humor. Body types all over the map in the company. I was greatly influenced in that regard. In building my own company, I always looked for the most interesting and the most musical dancers.
Eureka! I auditioned for and was cast in a major summer tour of MAME staring the role’s creator, Angela Lansbury. I can’t remember being more excited. It was an Equity contract, a huge step forward for me. The original, wonderful and challenging choreography by Onna White was being restaged by Diana Baffa. Anne Francine played Vera and Ed O’Herlihy, the announcer on TV’s The Kraft Music Hall played Mr. Babcock. The cast was huge with dancers who sang well, singers who danced well and actors.
We would open in Dallas at The Music Hall and would rehearse with orchestra there – yes a full orchestra. We stayed at the famous Melrose Hotel with a great outdoor pool. The Melrose is now The Warwick and the pool is now a parking lot. It is located in Oak Lawn, the original Dallas “gayborhood”. I now live in that neighborhood, a five minute walk to the hotel. I took leave from the Theatre Dance Collection. After Dallas, we went to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Miami. There were others, can’t recall. Les’ and my relationship was moving forward.
Angela Lansbury was incredible, hard-working, fun, personable, generous, in the moment – a consummate professional. What a gift having someone like her as my first big musical theater experience.
I had some great pals in the cast. Adrianne Doucette was a singer. We dressed up as cheeses and sang “Bosom Buddies” for Ed Herlihy’s birthday. Michael Lichtefeld was a wonderful dancer (now a very successful musical theater choreographer). The three of us spent a lot of time together. The first orchestra rehearsal in Dallas before Opening Night gave me goosebumps. We were off – a wonderful time.
When the tour ended, I resumed dancing with the Theater Dance Collection. Les and I moved in together at 307 West 20th Street in Chelsea, Apt 3-F. This was Chelsea before it became CHELSEA. There were lots of hispanic families. It was great. To support myself, I began working for an apartment cleaning agency called Lend-a-Hand. It was interesting. You had a four hour block of time to get the job done. The client was supposed to have cleaning supplies. That did not always happen. I did meet some interesting people. I worked regularly for Estele Bauer. She was Dr. Joyce Brothers mother. She had a huge blow-up of the $64,000 check Joyce won on the $64,000 Question. It hung in her unchanged bedroom. I worked for a high end caterer, David McCorkle. His loft was downtown near the Holland Tunnel.
Of course, I was once again studying with Betsy. She was on her own now, teaching in a studio on West 54th Street on the 5th floor. You could either walk up or take a very funky and distressed elevator. The studio was run by Trudi Gasparinetti. She lived in an apartment in the front with her lover/partner Martha. Martha was an aspiring ballerina and Trudi taught the morning ballet class. She was very interesting and very kind. This photo is what is there today. Studio 54 was down the street, a bit more West. There were two classes, Beginning/Intermediate at 2 and advanced at 3. I was there every day. I got cast as the lead Indian in a production of Annie Get Your Gun staring Mary Joe Catlett at the Coachlight Dinner Theater in East Winsor, CT. The cast stayed in Springfield MA and was transported back and forth. It was a decent production – my one and only dinner theater experience. The photo below is Betsy at Luigi’s studio in New York. She is on the left. Her sister Peggy is on the right.
Back in New York, Betsy had gotten a few choreography jobs and she asked me to teach for her. It was an amazing opportunity for me and I embraced it. Teaching in New York is demanding, especially the advanced/professional level. My life became looking for music, making up a combination, teaching it in class and starting over again. I developed my legs as a choreographer. I made up a lot of stuff. In addition to doing all of Betsy’s vocabulary, I started making up my own. I assisted Betsy on a nightclub actshe created for a Puerto Rican singer named Ednita Nazario. She was looking to expand her song sets and hopefully reach a larger audience, especially non Latinos. Betsy got a job in Copenhagen when the work was to premiere at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan. I went in her place. New York and my life there had taken on multiple new dimensions.
The Act, a new musical staring Liza Minnelli with a score by Kander and Ebb opened on Broadway October 29, 1997 after six previews. The show had a tumultuous road to New York and got decent reviews. Liza, of course, got raves. Ron Lewis was the choreographer and Betsy was one of two assistants. Brad Witzger, a regular in Betsy’s class was the dance understudy, the Swing. Wayne Cilento was one of the “boy” dancers. A few months into the NYC run, he was cast in a new Fosse show, ‘Dancin. Brad replaced him in the show. The producers held an audition at the Majestic Theater for a new Swing. Albert Stephenson, the Dance Captain, gave the audition. The audition was mobbed, they made cuts and I was in the last group of six! Betsy was still in Copenhagen. I let her know. She sent me this.
She wrote: “If you made it to the last 6 boys dancers at Ronnie’s audition then you can consider yourself stamped and given the seal of approval that you indeed are one of the six top dancers in New York City – HA! I knew it!”
Going back to the beginning of this narrative, I wrote: “…I am hard pressed to remember anyone saying – This is what you should do, you are great at this.” Well, someone finally did, seven years into the journey! I got the job – living in the city and dancing on Broadway – what could be better?
As a Swing in an Equity show, you have six weeks to learn all the parts and be ready to go on. I was learning the Wayne Cilento/Brad Witzger part and after 6 weeks, that was all I knew. The show was complicated and used lots of props (Las Vegas). “Turning” was done on brass poles that rotated. You sang and had to be in sync with everyone while dancing. There was a ramp. In “Hot Enough for You?, we used large tambourines and did complex body rhythms. Multiple costume changes. Liza had a dance understudy, of course.
Lounging in our Chelsea apartment on my first official “in the show” day, the theater called. Brad was either too ill to go on or had some major emergency. I would have to go on that night. I had not been fitted for any costumes. I rushed down to the theater and they pieced together something that would work. The cast came in and I went through all the numbers. This particular part had stage business with Liza, at the beginning of the show and during the second act opening number “City Lights”. Liza came in half an hour early to go over them and that was that!
I took lots of deep breaths and went on. It went well. During the curtain call Liza looked at me, screwed up her face and made huge bugs eyes at me , obviously reflecting the way I looked. The producers somehow found out that Brad’s excuse was not credible. He was let go and I was in the show!
I got a set of my own costumes – lots of sequins designed by Halston. There was a black sequined dinner jacket that we only wore for the curtain call. Roger Minami, lead dancer, star of “Arthur in the Afternoon” took me under his wing. He had danced for Ron Lewis in Las Vegas multiple times. The entire cast was amazed that I did a warm-up before every show. To this day, I warm up before every class – a must.
The dancers hung out until Liza was ready to leave the theater. We left together “surrounding” her, shielding her from the fans. You could tell, some were excited to see her off the stage, others felt they deserved more. One evening on a dark night, we were invited to Halston’s Upper East Side apartment for dinner. Andy Warhol was there with his polaroid. There was a dessert plate with a pile of joints on them. That’s all I remember. On occasion, we got to go to Studio 54 with Liza. This was its heyday. We were taken right inside, no cost – very glamorous and very exciting. We had a great time and the bartenders were oh so beautiful.
Liza being quiet – Arnold Soboloff, a cast member, had a big birthday and Liza threw him party after the show one night. Liza sang a few songs for Arnold with just piano and no microphone. It was magical, sincere, touching, lots of feeling, such great talent. This was a side of Liza audiences who came to see THE ACT never saw.
One Saturday matinee there were two busloads of ladies with the Mount Carmel Hadassah who came to see the show. I told Liza about this before the show. Sure enough, they sat close to the stage, not looking at Liza waving to me. Liza loved it and we all had lots of laughs – sweet.
I believe THE ACT was one of the first Broadway shows to use some pre-recorded music. Liza recorded vocals for two big dance numbers where she danced, sang and danced again. Stanley Lubowski was the conductor and had to sync a live orchestra with the recordings. It was tricky. I remember two occasions when the sound guy ( a pot head) got it all wrong. The audience was confused. Liza stopped the show, apologized and did the numbers live. The audience went crazy. The second time this happened, the sound guy was let go.
We recorded an original cast album. DGR records did it. It was exciting. I sang my one line in the song, “Little Does She Know” on pitch – close call – but it could have used more authority. I am there forever.
The show was nominated for six Tony Awards, Best Musical, Liza, Best Actress in a Musical, Barry Nelson, Best Actor in a Musical. At some point in the run, Barry took a leave of absence to be in Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of Stephen King’s “The Shining”. Gower Champion was brought in to do the role. Gower was actually brought in on the road as a Doctor/Fixer, uncredited. Martin Scorsese was the original director but apparently did not understand the theater. Gower was great in the show and great for Liza. She blossomed even more. THE ACT was also nominated for Best Choreography (should have won – Dancin’ did), Best Costume and Lighting Design.
The Tony Awards were held at the Shubert Theater on June 4, 1978. City Lights opened the show, a perfect way to start. It is on YouTube and I did great. I felt like I belonged there.
There was an article about in The Mount Carmel News Item. It was a thrilling experience. It is easy to see how that feeling can become addictive. I still have my Tony Awards security pin. Les was there and we went to Tavern on the Green for a celebration. Liza did win for Best Actress in a Musical – well deserved. The show closed on July 1, 1978. It was a defining experience for me, the best. My students think I am incredible having danced on Broadway with Liza Minnelli. Let’s hope it lasts. It is good to have that reference point since what I did with my dancing life after THE ACT went in such a different direction. I guess retirement will come when my students no longer know who Liza Minnelli is.
As amazing and exciting as it was working with Liza on Broadway and with Angela Lansbury in MAME, I came to the conclusion that a career in “Show Business” was not for me – don’t have the personality for it. That’s just fine. It is good to know. Less then a year later, I self-produced my first concert, Danny Buraczeski and Dancers at Playhouse 46, St. Clement’s Church. It was a new beginning. THE ACT closed on July 1, 1978 with a great party where both Liza and Lorna Luft sang. My first concert happened July 27,28 29, 1979, a little more than a year later.
The glamour was over. I needed to make a living. The first thing that came up was an offer from Roger Minami to dance in a lounge act he was creating in Atlantic City. I took the job and the bus. I met everyone, signed some papers and was ready to go. I took a personal tour of the casino and went back to Roger’s apartment quite distressed. Despite the fact that everyone was so great, I knew it was not for me. It was such a different world. I was staying on Roger’s couch. I got up in the middle of the night, made my way to the bus station and went back home to New York. It was a low point. I felt terrible. I told Les that I would not go out of the apartment for a few days and would not answer the phone. Crazy as it may seem, I was certain that the “mob” would come after me. They didn’t. I went back to cleaning apartments, one of which was the loft space of a high end caterer, David McCorkle. They did large events as well as private dinner parties with extravagant food and wine.
One day David asked what I made cleaning. He suggested I clean for him independently and also work for the catering business – I would make more money. I said yes. David was a singer and very sympathetic to artists. Most of the waiters were actors, singers and dancers. He often held “salons” in his loft with art songs and chamber music. I danced at one of them. I did many things for the catering business. I primarily became a prep assistant, picking up the day’s grocery order either at Balducci’s or the Jefferson Market on Sixth Avenue, cabbing them to the loft and doing whatever was needed to get the ingredients ready to be transformed.
I met a lot of wonderful, interesting and generous people working for David – Vincent FitzGerald published limited addition books, collaborations with playwrights, writers and visual artists, Ed Bond owned Lilac Chocolates on Christopher Street with his sister Martha, Ward Bennet was a famous architect and furniture designer. When the company incorporated, David often catered for a benefit reception – an omelette bar was particularly wonderful. The waiters all volunteered their services as I did many times for Trisha Brown events. Ed Bond supplied delicious chocolates from Lilac. Ed would always send chocolates to the theater every time we performed at the Joyce. It was a very special time, the beginning. All of this happened between June 1979 and June 1989, when Les and I left to merge JAZZDANCE with Zenon in Minneapolis. I had the dance company in New York for ten years.
More stories…….. I began to clean for Ward Bennet. Mr. Bennet was a world famous designer, legendary in the world of New York Interiors. He held a strong belief in sensual minimalism. His apartment was in the Dakota on the Upper West Side, carved out in 1962 from a labyrinth of maids rooms tucked under the rooftop gables. In 1964, the NY Times called it “the most exciting modern apartment in New York City. It was like something I had never seen or experienced. I had to take a particular elevator in the Dakota to the roof top and walk across to access the door to his apartment. The apartment was quite monochromatic, serene and quiet. I also started to make meals. After cleaning, I would shop for groceries, cook, and leave the meal on the stove. It was an all day commitment. Mr. Bennett trusted me. David convinced him to make a donation to the dance company. That was something he never did and it touched me deeply. I was not, however, allowed to put his name in the program.
Joe McCrindle – I may have met him as a Lend-A-Hand client, cleaning his apartment. It was on Central Park West. Eventually, I did it independently. Mr. McCrindle was an art collector who had amassed a trove of old master drawings. He founded and edited the Transatlantic Review, an important literary magazine. We got along quite well. Joe also asked me to cook for a dinner party he put together every other week. There were usually six to eight “gents”. I cooked, served and cleaned up as they had their cigars at the end of the meal. All of this cooking was a result of what I learned working for the catering company. Joe had an assistant who then got engaged. I convinced him to have the post wedding reception in his apartment. I would make not only the food but a wedding cake as well. What was I thinking? I went out and bought four cake pans of different sizes to make a tiered confection. This all turned out to be quite stressful. I panicked and called some company members. I remember Abby and Janice came to help. There may have been others. We did it. The food was great and everyone loved the cake. Love conquered all! Mr. McCrindle gave me a drawing by Joseph Rizzi that I loved. It’s called “It’s Hard to be a Saint When You’re Living in the City” – indeed! It is hanging in my office.
My association and friendship with Vincent FitzGerald enabled many collaborations with visual artists. Mark Beard created the sets and costumes for Rhapsody: The Skyscraper Observed” celebrating the company’s first appearance at the Joyce Theater. The music, of course, was Gershwin.
It was very whimsical, a look at the forces – banking, science and art that contributed to the development of the modern skyscraper.
With Susan Weil and I collaborated on three sets that ultimately became the heart of five dances. In New York, we created Soulo, with french horn master Willie Ruff playing African American Spirituals live while I danced. The backdrop was black, painted with multicolored birds and leaves. Bernard Kirschembaum designed a moon that traveled across the stage from left to right for the length of the solo. It rotated as well, going through the moon’s phases. The backdrop and moon took light beautifully and created what one might call, a universal “spirit world” – very poetic. When I restarted JAZZDANCE in Minneapolis, with Susan’s permission, I used the same drop for On My Way, set to gospel songs sung by the incomparable Mahalia Jackson. The backdrop had a wonderful and extended second life. Unfortunately, it was irrevocably damaged, folded up in a garage and had to be thrown away. It was like losing a wonderful friend. I miss not having it near.
When I merged JAZZDANCE with Zenon, Susan created an extraordinary backdrop for Ancestral Voices, music sung by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir (where was the jazz?) The backdrop was painted gold, with hundreds of cut out leaves. There were purple branches winding their way throughout. There was some wonderful movement and a few “moments”, but ultimately, the dance did not work and had a short life.
It did, however, have a rebirth with Las Cuatro Estaciones (2001) set to Astor Piazzolla’s reimagining of the Vivaldi score. It was lush and extravagant. In making it, I was reminded of Sir Fredrick Ashton’s comment that all of his dances were about friendship, nature or music. Ashton has always been an inspiration to me.
I still have the backdrop in the garage and hope that someday soon, I can hang it up, see it again and asses its condition. I don’t anticipate being able to reconstruct the dance, but who knows?
Susan and I had one more collaboration, Among These Cares commissioned in 1997 by the Library of Congress. The score was by Sir Roland Hanna. I had always loved his music and used it in my classes frequently. When we toured the dance, the five panels were sent ahead in large and sturdy tubes to protect them. I have those tubes in my garage as well. How I would love to see them again. That makes three beautiful and strikingly different backdrops in the service of five dances. Susan is an extraordinary artist an I feel fortunate to have experienced her great spirit.
The company had its post-Zenon rebirth at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at the College of St Catherine in St. Paul. At the time, Susan Federbush was head of programming. She is now Susan Graceman. Susan was a huge fan of my work and wanted the company to succeed. She did everything she could to make it affordable. Such kindness. We performed there regularly from 1993 – 2004. It was our “home”. We also performed multiple times at The Southern Theater in Minneapolis.
For all the details of the dance company’s history, open up the History page.