After a career in musical theater and on Broadway appearing in MAME with Angela Lansbury and THE ACT with Liza Minnelli, I self-produced my first concert in July of 1979 at Playhouse 46 (St. Clement’s Church) in New York City. It was called Danny Buraczeski and Dancers.
I asked my favorite dance class pals, all studying jazz with the extraordinary Betsy Haug if they were interested in performing in a concert of my choreography. This is Betsy – she was amazing, one of a kind. Her class was all about music and all about rhythm.
The closest thing to jazz on the program was a work called Swing Suite with music by Glenn Miller and the Army Air Force Band. The recordings were from my dad’s collection. He and my mother loved to swing dance. There were two duets at the heart of the work that were inspired by the hypnosis dance in the movie Carefree, danced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In looking back at this first concert and where it would lead, what distinguished me as a jazz choreographer was that I was interested in ideas. In this case, I was paying homage to and referencing something already in the dance canon, but making it my own.
The jazz dance I had seen was very frontal and very sexy. Nothing wrong with that, but I was looking for more. I thought the music was more than one dimensional, capable of great expressivity. Of course, there was great musical theater jazz dancing, but in that case the ideas came from the story and the story gave the choreography its context.
Ten months later, I did a second concert at Larry Richardson’s Dance Gallery, very East on 14th Street. It was now The Danny Buraczeski Dance Company.
In addition to Swing Suite, the other “jazz” work was called Promenade set to some of George Gershwin’s piano pieces. I still teach a solo from that dance in my advanced jazz classes at SMU. The performances were successful but lead to a true artistic crisis. I asked myself why was I doing this, making dances. Was there more to putting on concerts other than picking out music I loved and choreographing to it? Did I have a point of view? I decided to go to the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and research jazz dance.
My ignorance was confirmed. The rich history of a profound and uniquely American artistic legacy was a revelation. It was clear that the music and dance developed along parallel lines, each influencing and riffing on the other. The classic jazz dances that I saw and read about, the Cakewalk, Charleston, Lindy-Hop and Blues were astonishing in their vitality and resonance. I was doing a Cakewalk in both MAME (the title number) and THE ACT (City Lights) and didn’t realize it. These classic jazz dances had been and continue to be a goldmine of inspiration for the American musical, continually reinvented and re-imagined. This would be my focus, honoring and exploring the richness and complexity of classic jazz music. My work would hopefully become a physical response to music, a search to build an authentic and contemporary jazz dance vocabulary based on vernacular forms.
Nine months later, March 1981, we were back at Playhouse 46 for a third concert. It was now Danny Buraczeski – Jazzdance in Concert The new work on the program was FISSION, set to music by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. This dance was a breakthrough for me, my first attempt at abstraction. I was drawn to the music because of its rhythms and its “coolness”. I had been reading a lot of Beat poets and took a close look at the era. Fission, of course, is the splitting of the atom. World War II gave women new opportunities to work, taking on new responsibilities. When the men returned , things felt different, almost as if the roles between the sexes had been redefined. There was, in a sense, a fission or splitting of their relationships. In the dance, men and women dance together only at the beginning and again in the finale. There are women’s and men’s trios in the middle. One of the men’s trios is a “Raincoat Dance” inspired by a famous photo of James Dean walking in the rain. The costumes were black and white. I wanted to create a work built upon the relationships between the dancers. We all talked about the ideas. The ideas would give the dance its “feeling”. The audience is always a part of the performance but in this case, they would watch the relationships. The dancers did not “play” to the audience at all. It might seem simple and obvious, but it was a first step in defining what concert jazz dance might be on my terms. It was exciting and the dancers were fully engaged collaborators. It was a great success.
This was our third concert. I sent out a release to the New York press that covered dance. Amazingly, Jennifer Dunning from the New York Times and Aaron Cohen, writing for a dance publication called In-Step replied saying they would be there – exciting and scary.
Aaron Cohen wrote, “Danny Buraczeski knows the difference between steps and phrases, the mark of a real choreographer as opposed to a dance maker; therefore he is someone to seek out in whatever arena he is working. Jennifer Dunning wrote, “Mr. Buraczeski is a promising if low key original. And his four dances looked thought through and enjoyed.” We knew when the review was coming out and went down to the Times building after 11pm and got the morning edition. It was thrilling, we were off.
After presenting work for three years, I was able to apply for New York State Council on the Arts funding. In order to do that, I needed to incorporate and become a 501© (3) tax exempt non-profit organization. I did so and had good friends agree to be board members. Frank Davis was the first president. Frank had danced in Hollywood and worked with many stars including Judy Garland. He was one of the “boyfriends” at the Palace Theater in New York. I had never applied for a grant and asked John Killacky if he would help. John was the Executive Director of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. One of the many jobs I had to support myself in the city was working for David McCorkle, a wonderful high end caterer. I met him because I cleaned apartments for a company called Lend-A-Hand. He had a great loft downtown near the Holland Tunnel. David was also a singer and most of his waiters, waitresses and prep help were aspiring actors, dancers and singers. He often catered fundraising and opening night parties for Trisha Brown at cost and we all donated our services. John said he would help, I applied and got funded.
Eight months later, funding in hand, we were chosen to perform as part of The Riverside Dance Festival. The festival was sponsored by Riverside Church at 120th Street in the Morningside Heights . David Manion was the director and you had to audition. Becky Bowden, my partner and assistant and I were auditioning with our Swing Suite duets and another duet called Wolf Eyes. We started that duet with Becky wearing a red tutu and me with a black velvet prince’s top. On the day of the audition, we got on the wrong train and wound up at East 120th street in Harlem. Not having time to get back on the subway, we crossed Central Park carrying our costumes. In the early 1980’s that was not the safest thing to do. We got to the audition on time, warmed up and were selected for the dance series.
Added to the company’s rep for these performances was a dance called SPLASH. In the first two concerts I needed a fun closer. Concert #1 had Dead Heat, music by Gino Soccio. Concert #2 had Relight My Fire by Dan Hartman, very popular at the time. I called them Disco pieces and so they were. We definitely played to the audience. SPLASH was entertaining and had lots of ideas. I used the popular TV dance shows Hullabaloo and Shindig as inspiration. Hullabaloo was spelled out with larger than life letters that you could dance on. I bought refrigerator boxes, painted and lettered them in BLT studios on 17th Street. We were rehearsing there. They spelled SPLASH, of course and were All-American blue and red. The music was by The Lions, Bobby Vee, Chubby Checker, Leslie Gore, Joan Jett, The Silicon Teens and Finn and the Sharks. The dance itself was All-American, drawing upon social dance of the period – the twist, stroll, swim and frug. The turning point was Leslie Gore’s You Don’t Own Me, danced by Becky very innocently. The song then repeated with Joan Jett’s sardonic version. Everything went crazy. We repeated the opening song double time, removed the P from SPLASH, turned the boxes around. They were black and yellow and now spelled SLASH. We quickly changed into torn black costumes and acknowledged a punk sensibility. Another breakthrough for me, an entertaining closer with social commentary and a bit of substance.
One afternoon I got a surprising call. It was Charles Reinhart, Director of the American Dance Festival. ADF was launching a new program, Young Composers and Choreographers in Residence. I was one of three emerging choreographers selected. The company would have a six week residency at the festival. We would collaborate with a composer and premiere a new work at the Reynolds Theater. It was such a validation of the work we had done. The program was funded by Exon among others. There would be a luncheon announcing the new program. Two of the “announcers” were Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. I was paired with a composer named Eric Valinsky. We created On the Side of Light. It stayed in the repertory for about a year and a half. This is me at ADF in that beautiful sunlight.
We were getting requests to tour. I had no idea what to do. I first asked Judith Liegner of Liegner Management if she would represent the company. Judith was the booking agent for the Theater Dance Collection, a modern dance collective that I had worked with – great people. She said yes. When that didn’t work out I went to Pentacle, a large organization that did booking, financial management and lot of other services. That didn’t quite work out either. When I say did not work out I mean this…. an artist needs to feel comfortable with his or her representative talking about their work to potential sponsors with clarity and insight. That was not the case with either Liegner or Pentacle.
I decided to try another approach. I rented the big studio at Harkness House on the Upper East Side, put together a showing and invited dance booking agents. If they were interested, I would talk with them afterwards and get their take on the work. It was a success, an important one. I found Lisa Booth and Deirdre Valente of Lisa Booth Management. They were smart and they talked about the work intelligently and with passion. I signed up. They represented the company for the next twenty years and were responsible for lots of touring and helped secure funding for many wonderful projects. This was 1985.
They helped secure a summer teaching residency for me at The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Fesdtival. I was commissioned to create a work on the students, premiering at the Ted Shawn Theater. I made a dance called Avalon with music by Lionel Hampton. It became a staple in the company’s rep for the next four years. We also performed at Lincoln Center Out-of Doors.
In 1985, I completed a dance called Lost Life (Four Scenes from the Life of Art Pepper). It was the first of a number of dance biographies I have created over the years. The source here was the great alto saxophonist Art Pepper, famous for his lyrical sound yet plagued by an ongoing heroin addiction. There were two main sources, an intensely candid biography called Straight Life and a documentary, Jazz Survivor made by Art Pepper’s wife Laurie. There are five characters, Art Pepper as a Boy, Art Pepper as a Man, His Mother, His Wife, and the Drug Dealer. This was another work that pushed the boundaries of what jazz dancing had been up to that point. It is very important to me and I hope it can be brought back to life one day.
The Joyce Theater in Chelsea was created from a repertory movie theater (The Elgin) into home for dance, especially for small and medium size companies like mine.
After performing in smaller spaces and theaters, the logical progression was City Center. That was impossible because of the expense. They created what they called The Joyce Sampler, eight companies. Two companies would share a week of performances. I was selected in this inaugural series. Others were Diane McIntyre, Ohad Naharin, Kenneth Rinker, Clive Thompson, Hannah Kahn and Peggy Lyman.
I decided to do two rep pieces, Avalon and Lost Life. To celebrate this wonderful opportunity, I created a new work, Rhapsody: The Skyscraper Observed. It was set to a double piano version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” played by the LeBeque sisters. There were spectacular sets designed by Mark Beard, a client of Vincent FitzGerald, a publisher of limited edition books. Vincent was a friend of David McCorkle, the caterer I had worked for. There were three huge moveable pieces, all statues. They represented Science, Engineering and Art, the forces that created the famous New York City Skyline – lots of ideas. Becky Bowden was the lead in a role called “The Walker”. As each statue was added to the stage, the space changed, markedly influencing the dance as it proceeded. It ended with a slowly descending silhouette, with the dancers leaping through and around the “city”. It was a whimsical work.
From the Joyce Sampler in1986 through April 1989, there was a wonderful abundance of touring. There was an appearance at Jacob’s Pillow, again Lincoln Center Out-Of-Doors, a self-produced season at Marymount Manhattan Theater, performances at the American Dance Festival followed by a teaching residency for me, a full self-produced Joyce Theater season, a series at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, The Dance Hall in Cincinnati and performances at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.
In the summer of 1988, I taught at the Bates Dance Festival and Harvard Summer Dance. In March of 1989, we had a four city tour in Montana. It was an interesting and intense experience. Things finished off with performances at The Ohio Theater in April. I can’t say that this was the most creative period for me. The amount of touring was wonderful but was a bit overwhelming. I needed more official help. I made some new work, but nothing that lasted or was of much interest. I extended a Charles Mingus work Pithecanthropus Erectus originally created on Zoe Sealy’s Minnesota Jazz Dance Company in 1986. The extended work was called Theme and Reflections.
I also collaborated with composer/conductor Amy Duncan on Out of the Blues and made a tango inspired work called Night Vision based on a book I loved, “Imagining Argentina”. They were serviceable and workman-like but not inspired.
I began going to Minneapolis/St. Paul in the mid-1980’s. In addition to the work for Zoe Sealy, I created three works for a modern and jazz repertory company called Zenon directed by Linda Andrews. The dancers were wonderful. The Northwest Area Foundation gave Zenon a huge three year grant to merge with my company, JAZZDANCE. I decided to go for it, closed the NYC organization and moved to Minneapolis in the summer of 1989. I had become so “successful” but could not afford to move to a larger apartment. New York had gotten great for Wall Street but brutal for artists. Les and I got rid of the bed, bought a futon and made a bedroom/office. Our closets were overflowing with the company’s costumes. It was not easy leaving New York and not easy saying good-bye to a group amazing dancers who had given me their all, sharing in an incredible artistic journey. It just needed to happen.
I initially had a three year contract with Zenon. It lasted two and a half years. Lisa Booth and Deirdre Valente were with me all the way. The plan was to offer either a mixed modern and jazz repertory program or an all Buraczeski jazz dance program. We had a Joyce season with alternate programs, did a generous amount of touring and went to Switzerland on an eight city tour with an all jazz program. We also performed and taught at the Aruba International Dance Festival. I made four new works, Racing the Wind, music by Egberto Gismonti, Airegin, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite with great sets by Alex Jankowski (Memphis) and spectacular costumes by James Viera (danced with JAZZDANCE the last year in New York) and Secular Psalmody with music by Sister Rosetta Tharp, Randy Newman, Odetta and Archie Shepp. I was slowly coming into a new creative and inspired period.
The merger just didn’t work. Linda and I had radically different management styles and I was ultimately not comfortable with my work being seen in a mixed rep context. I told Zenon that I was leaving early. They threatened to sue and claimed they owned all my work including dances I had made before I even knew of Zenon. They hired a lawyer. I found a wonderful lawyer who worked pro bono. His name was Jerry Berg. At the end, it was like a divorce. Linda and I never spoke. She was in a room with her lawyer and I was in a room with Jerry. The lawyers spoke. We worked it out. Linda and I are now great friends. I have actually created two new works for Zenon and have set two of my rep works on them. Linda is a great advocate for my work and an advocate for cutting edge modern choreography in the Twin Cities. Onward.
During the “break up”, I had been putting out feelers and had met with a few funders in the Twin Cities about the possibility of their support for a newly reborn JAZZDANCE. They were very positive. Cynthia Mayeda of the Dayton Hudson Foundation (now the Target Foundation) and the McKnight Foundation agreed to fund the start up company. Since the community had been so generous to me and my work, I decided to rebuild JAZZDANCE with local dancers. I had been teaching as an adjunct at the University of Minnesota and there was a great crop of dancers about to graduate. Cathy Young of Zenon decided to leave and become my assistant. She is an amazing woman, smart, insightful and talented. The success of the new company is due, in large part, to her mentoring.
Karla Kay Larson (now Karla Grotting) was a member of Zoe Sealy’s Minnesota Jazz Dance Company. She relocated to New York and was part of the NYC JAZZDANCE. She is the real deal, an authentic jazz dancer. She would be an integral part of the new group. I hired two more men and two more women. We did our first concert at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul April 2 & 3, 1993. The woman who ran the theater was Susan Federbusch. She was a big fan and was amazingly generous. She wanted us to succeed.
There were four dances on the program, three of them were premieres. The one rep piece was the Charles Mingus Pithecanthropus Erectus. The new works were a solo for me, Le Souvenir, with the song “For All We Know” sung by Lillian Boutte. I created the original version at the Bates Dance Festival. It is about memory and done with a handkerchief. It later became part of a dance called Foot Fetish. I performed it as part of the closing retrospective at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis and have been asked to do it as part of The Lost Choreographers of the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company, summer 2015. I created two large group works for the debut concert.
Fuerza Viva is a Latin inspired work with music by Tito Puente and the Queen of Cuban Soul, Celia Cruz. The costumes were black, there were chairs and at the end a string of lights dropped down. It was a party. It is interesting, in retrospect that the lights came down only at the very end. I did something similar but in a totally different context in a 1999 work, Ezekiel’s Wheel. In that dance photos of Civil Rights activists appear gently at the very end of the 30 minute work. I always wanted my dances to have room for the viewers’ own experiences. I believe that performance is a collaboration between performer and audience. The other new work was On My Way, music by Mahalia Jackson.
Her extraordinary voice and spirit truly helped me in the dark days of the Zenon break-up. Costumes were very humble in hues of red, burgundy and brown designed by Mary Hansmeyer.
This was our first collaboration and lead to many, many inspired dances and designs.Mary loved the picture file in the library. I knew nothing of the picture file. Her research, her knowledge of fabric and gifts as a seamstress were unparalleled – a great woman and a great artist. She is currently a very successful real estate agent. The backdrop was designed by Susan Weil. It was originally created in New York for a work called Soulo with French Horn master Willie Ruff playing African American spirituals while I danced. It only worked with live music which meant it had a short stage life. Below, on the right, is one of the only photos I have of the set. It had abstractions of birds and leaves painted on black, very beautiful, very dramatic, very human. On the left is Byron Gibbs, one of the company’s board members and a graphic designer himself, working on the original design,
With Susan’s permission, I used it again for the gospel inspired On My Way. The backdrop was black with painted birds and leaves scattered from top to bottom – beautiful, soulful and universal.
Lisa Booth and Deirdre Valente were 100% with the new company. We had a residency in Cincinnati at the Dance Hall, performed Fuerza Viva at Jacob’s Pillow and did a second concert in the Twin Cities eight months later. We premiered what would become a signature work, Swing Concerto, about the relationship between two great vernacular traditions, Eastern European Klezmer music and the swing orchestras of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. I have subsequently restaged this dance more times that I can remember! I will be setting it in fall 2015 on the SMU students – the third time in my ten year history there.
On My Way was also on the program as well as Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, a new version of the work originally created while at Zenon. New sets were created for these performances. The dancing Christmas trees now had recorded taps – a tap number!
I was given a creative and performance residency at Jacob’s Pillow for three consecutive years, 1994-1996. I was Director of the summer Vision of Jazz workshop from 1996-1998. This was another amazing opportunity. During those summers, we had performances in the Studio Theater and had a very loyal and regular audience. We always sold out. One day, Norton Owen, Director of Preservation at the Pillow came to me saying he had some material he thought I might be interested in seeing. Broadway choreographer Ron Field had made a bequest of multiple boxes of videotapes. I went into the viewing room one evening and started watching. The tapes were of Jack Cole’s choreography. I new the name but that was about all I knew. The work was astonishing. There was movement vocabulary and ideas that I had seen and learned in many classes but his name had not been mentioned. I wanted to try and bring his name and contribution back into the light. The Pillow offered support. Cole discovered dance through Denishawn. He was briefly a member of Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers company. It was a fiery relationship. Cole left, moved to New York and stayed in Charles Weidman’s studio. He loved swing and studied Bharatnatyam (classical Southern Indian dance) with Uday Shankar and also with La Meri. He combined the isolations and deep pile with swing music and put together a small group that danced in the Rainbow Room. The group was wildly successful. Cole was asked to go to Hollywood and became an important film choreographer. We began studying Bharatnatyam and I brought in Deborah Bier, a former dancer with the American Dance Machine to teach us some Cole material she had learned with Lee Theodore. We reconstructed “Ninevah” from the film Kismet, a jitterbug from Tonight and Every Night, “Is There Anyone Here for Love” from Gentleman Prefer Blondes and “Why Are You So Gone About That Girl” from Les Girls”. “Why Are You So Gone About That Girl” was a Marlon Brando inspired duet with Gene Kelly and Mitzi Gaynor. Jack Cole became ill during the filming of Les Girls and asked Gene Kelly to finish that number. The tribute finished up with the very spicy “Happy Endings Every Time” from On the Riviera. The women wore amazing bee dresses and hats! I had piano reductions made from the film scores and wrote and recorded a script that was part of what was called Jack Cole Montage. It was a major undertaking. We worked really hard on it and I was proud of the results.
In 1994, we were at the Bates Dance Festival, the Jazz Dance World Congress in Chicago and performed in Philadelphia. The Company self-produced at the Joyce in NYC, January 1995 and was presented at the Florida Dance Festival in Tampa. Other venues were Pepperdine in California and Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia, WA among others.
I created a work for the Boston Ballet in 1996 called By the Horns. The company toured to Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
!997 was a big year. I was commissioned by the Library of Congress to create a new work, a collaboration with jazz pianist and composer Sir Roland Hanna.
The sets were again designed by Susan Weil, another artist represented by Vincent FitzGerald & Company (Mark Beard did the sets for Rhapsody). The head of dance at the library had seen the company a number of times and thought it was time to commission another dance. Their only other commission was Martha Graham and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The music was in three parts like a sonata and was very lyrical. I created Among These Cares.
It became a dance about my mother and her sisters. They had been the backbone, the heart and soul of their families. All of them were smart, capable and had incredible integrity. My mother should have gone to college. They all focused on family. The women’s costumes were pastel dresses, very much like the L’Aiglon dresses she actually wore. I remember going to the dress shop with her for fittings. The men wore translucent short sleeved shirts, very popular in the 1950’s.
The work premiered in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on May 7, 1977. We went directly to the Joyce for a week long season. Jennifer Dunning, dance critic at the NY Times really got it. The title of her review was “Small LIves Enlarged by a Heroic Air”. It was so gratifying. My mother and two of her sisters came to see the dance in New York.
Susan Weil’s sets were a series of five panels that lowered as the dance progressed,carving out a new stage space with each addition. The panels had images of home, like a chair, steps, a window. There was a photo of my mother and other moms in the school cafeteria. There was also a photo of Susan. They were spectacular. The entire process, stressful and pressured at times, was immensely fulfilling. Here are the pieces of the set.
marked the company’s last performances at Jacob’s Pillow. A new director has different priorities and there are always changes. I will always be grateful for the multiple opportunities and generous support over the many years.
1998 marks new dances as well. Scene Unseen, a dance biography of sorts exploring the relationship between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn set to their inspired music, Cortege, music by Wynton Marsalis inspired by the music and traditions of New Orleans and Foot Fetish, a work celebrating the vernacular and the
wonderful singing of Julia Lee and Slim & Slam. I incorporated the solo “For All We Know” into this dance as well. I always hold on to dances or sections of dances that I love. They often find their way back into the rep in new ways. Somewhere I read, and I agree completely, “Dance stays alive by the doing of it.” True!
November 27-29 and December 4-6, 1998, we gave a concert at O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul that was a Duke Ellington celebration in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth. I presented Scene Unseen, Zoe Sealy, founder of the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company, remounted her New Orleans Suite. I commissioned Cathy Young to crate a new work on the company. She made a wonderfully sexy and spicy work titled Zero Cool. It was a great program. I also gave a sneak preview of a work-in-progress, Ezekiel’s Wheel.
Ezekiel’s Wheel is a signature work created in collaboration with percussionist and vocalist Philip Hamilton.
Peter Jones also contributed to the Blues section of the work. EW is a tribute to author, essayist and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin. It was commissioned by the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) and the Bates Dance Festival (Maine) with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and there New England Foundation for the Arts. I mention the list of funders here because I never had and have not had since such a generous amount of time to create a work. I worked on EW for over a year. The dance was completed and presented with live music November 5, 1999.
For these performances in St. Paul, I created 21st Century Stride with an original piano score by Peter Jones. The work marked the beginning of a new century by looking back to the turn of the 20th Century and the music that defined that period, Ragtime. The dance also marked the retirement of Les Johnson, JAZZDANCE company member in New York and Minneapolis. The program also included Among These Cares. All works were performed with live music. I was named Artist of the Year by the Minneapolis StarTribune
We also had live music for EW in performances at the Joyce Theater at in Boston at the Majestic Theater presented by the Boston Dance Umbrella. It was glorious.
I was awarded a Travel & Study grant form the Jerome Foundation to study Afro-Cuban and Cuban popular dance in Havana. Music poured out of every window, every doorway, every cab. It was very hot and it was very stimulating. I studied Afro-Cuban and Cuban popular daces. I also got to see and hear the Buena Vista Social Club on a Friday night in the Karl Marx Theater. It was their first return visit to Cuba after huge success worldwide. Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Ruben Gonzales – it was amazing, not only the music, but the sold out hall having an unabashed love affair with these remarkable musicians.
I was so inspired by my time in Cuba and created Song Awakened, with music sung by Cesaria Evora. It is one of my personal favorites. The dance celebrated the sea. All entrances and exits were right to left, nothing on the diagonal. It is very special to me. One gets to a point as a choreographer wondering if there are any new ideas, any new steps.
This dance was bursting with freshness. It surprised me. It is one of the dances I have been able to reconstruct since I have been on faculty at SMU. It was a great challenge for the students. The work is spatially complex, there is a lot of floor work and the movement vocabulary is very particular and detailed. They were beautiful. It gave me great hope that works that are special to me, signature works, can have new life on a new generation of dancers.
There is a remarkable theater in the Twin Cities, The Southern Theater. It was an old vaudeville house and movie theater. It is great for dance, if you use it well. The seats are on a rake – all great viewing. The stage space is a large square. There are doorways on both stage right and left and a beautiful archway with more recessed dancing space behind. I did three great projects there. The first was in June 2001. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Aaron Copland’s birth, I created an evening length work, COPLAND/Music & Imagination.
It began with a solo for myself danced to the Waltz from “Billy the Kid”. I used part of the clarinet solo – deviously difficult music and jazzy piano pieces.
There was a duet set to part of violin and cello sonata danced by Joanne Spencer and Dana Holstad and the work closed with the majestic “Quiet City”. It was the highest level of ensemble work. This particular group of dancers had been dancing and touring together for quite some time. Their ability to bring this beautiful and challenging music to life with subtlety, clarity and great emotional depth represents the essence of what a dance company can be.
In 2002, I could really sense the touring diminishing. The dance world was changing. We had some touring including Providence and The Flynn Center in Burlington. We had live music for EW again. In December, we were back at the O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul. I decided to be big and put together a traditional holiday program. We brought the Ellington Nutcracker back one more time and I made a huge work, Las Cuatro Estaciones – The Four Seasons with Astor Piazzolla’s take on the Vivaldi. Mary Hansmeyer outdid herself with the costumes and Mary Ann Bradley did the lead, a solo “Mother Nature”-like role.
I used another spectacular set designed by Susan Weil for a work I did after the merger with Zenon. It was Ancestral Voices with music by the Buglarian Women’s Choir. It was not particularly successful and had a very short life.
Las Cuatro Estaciones began in summer. I used the image of a sundial in a garden for the opening. In fall, the men and women separated, the oncoming cold and darkness creating a detachment and distance. Mary Ann danced with each group, slowly bringing back a quiet longing. Winter was the warmest section. As the men lay on the floor downstage, the women crossed upstage from stage right to left. They faced upstage and were topless. It was mysterious and beautiful.
Things heated up. There was a costume change and the work concluded with the great sense of rebirth that spring evokes. Although Mary Ann danced with the group during the whole piece, spring was the first time they interacted with each other directly.
The group partnered and manipulated Mary Ann as the work came to a close. The dancers were center, on the floor, recalling the sundial at the beginning. (I call this T&V – my students know this all too well – Theme&Variations). Mary Ann exited and walked behind the cutouts of the backdrop – beautiful.
There was even less touring in 2003, but it was of great quality, Cincinnati, Columbia College in Chicago and a final Joyce season. The highlight of the season was another new evening length work at The Southern Theater, GET HAPPY (The Judy Garland Project). It was a labor of love since I fell in love with Judy Garland in high school. I practically wore out the LP “Judy Garland – Live at Carnegie Hall”. I used the electric applause from that recording, as the audience anticipated Judy’s appearance to start the work. Dancers ran around the stage navigating complex patterns barely missing each other. The first song was “Alone Together” exactly as it was on the recording.
The dancers played different aspects of Garland’s life and career as the piece progressed. When they did so, they wore a red scarf. The costumes were black and white. I did the first solo, the ultimate fan. I wrote and recorded the text and then danced to “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”. Another segment dealt with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney being directed by Busby Berkley. He was brutal with them, having them do take after take until he got what he wanted. Ann Marie Myhre and Jeffrey Peterson danced to “The Texas Tornado”. The song stopped three times with the word, “CUT!”. They danced until they collapsed.
Still in Hollywood, there was a Gene Kelly/Judy duet as he waited for her to come out of her dressing room. The song was “I’m Nobody’s Baby”. I also choreographed to “The Man That Got Away”.
Then there was a stage covered with poppies as the dancers moved through them in slow motion, falling asleep and then being awakened by a mirror ball – all except one dancer who never woke up. The work ended with “Get Happy”, everyone in technicolor costumes recalling “The Wizard of Oz”. My hope was to celebrate Judy Garland’s remarkable talent and career. The work was wildly popular and was brought back by popular demand in spring 2004.
I made one last dance for the company, True Believer with music by the remarkable Odetta. I have always loved her voice and her spirit. Along with James Baldwin and Mahalia Jackson, Odetta was a champion for Civil Rights. The first section was done in silence, feet then claps then body rhythms. Not having thought about all of this, I am heartened that I was still trying new things.
I got a call from the Chair in the Division of Dance at Southern Methodist University in Dallas asking if I would consider being an Artist in Residence for a year. I asked if it might lead to a permanent position. She said yes. Considering what a struggle keeping the dance company going had become (the touring had completely evaporated), I said yes. It was at the same time a difficult and an easy decision to make. I put together an extensive retrospective performed for two weeks at The Southern Theater. In addition to the current company of nine, there were eleven guest artists. Excerpts from thirteen dances were presented. The concert was called A Life in Dance.
Friends put together a pre-show and post-show reception. Dennis Diamond, videographer from New York flew in with a small crew and made a documentary, JAZZDANCE – End of an Era. Dennis had a NYC based company called Video D. His wife, Elizabeth had worked for Lisa Booth Management. Dennis and Elizabeth met at one of our Joyce seasons and fell in love. He filmed the concert multiple times and interviewed many of the dancers.
In the history of the dance company, there are people I would like to write about. I have had so many collaborators, supporters and friends on this journey. I would like to recognize them. They include: Lisa Booth & Deirdre Valente, Jefferson James, Trevor F. Lewis II, Cathy Young, Joanne Horn Spencer, Nancy Brandenberg, Allen Collier, Susan Federbush.
And here I am at SMU, in the middle of my eleventh year. The creation of this website is a celebration of that and my 45 years in professional dance. Onward!