The final interview in our three- part series with the choreographers for Southern Methodist University’s 2015 Spring Dance Concert is with SMU jazz dance professor Danny Buraczeski.
Buraczeski is bringing back his acclaimed 1999 piece Ezekiel’s Wheel, inspired by the life and work of author and civil rights activist James Baldwin. The piece is set to a percussive musical score interspersed with passages of Baldwin’s writings. Buraczeski, a nationally known jazz dance artist and consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts, choreographed the work for his former company Jazzdance. Following its premiere at New York’s Joyce Theater, The New York Times called it “balm for the soul in troubled times.”
How did you first find you way into dance and is there one pivotal moment when you knew that dance would be your career?
DBI discovered dance while working towards a BA in Japanese Studies at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. I was feeling very sedentary. My friend Tanya suggested I come with her to a ballet class. A woman named Joan Moyer came to town once a week and taught classes all day above a hardware store. I went. She put on a scratchy ballet record, started to explain and I knew right then that I wanted to dance. It was so beautiful and so elegant. I did sing in high school and was involved in musical theater, but dancing was not part of my experience. Joan was very charismatic and had a school about twelve miles away from Bucknell. I started to hitchhike after class to make up for lost time. I then got a work-study scholarship at the American Dance Festival when it was at Connecticut College. The original Ailey and Limon companies were there as was Twyla Tharp before she was Twyla Tharp. I knew for sure I wanted to dance professionally.
When did you begin the transition from dancer to choreographer?
DBThere was no transition. I danced and choreographed simultaneously beginning in the mid-1970’s up until I stopped performing with my concert jazz dance company around 2002. I considered myself a choreographer after self-producing my first concert in New York City in the summer of 1979.
What drew you to jazz as a style specifically?
DBFirst of all, I consider jazz a technique. There are things you learn and do in a jazz class that you only learn and do in a jazz class. It’s an energy-based as opposed to an architectural dance form. I could go on to list the characteristic of jazz dance, but you see it most clearly when someone mistakenly overlays a jazz style on top of a ballet or modern technical foundation. It does not work and does not look like jazz. Jazz dance does not exist without the music. I think it is the only dance form about which you could say that.
The piece that will be performed was originally created in 1999. How has the work survived over time, and since you have staged this before, what similarities and differences have you noticed between casts?
DBEzekiel’s Wheel is in a group of dances I have created that I would call signature works. It defined where I was at the time and pointed the direction forward. I first reconstructed it on students at SMU in spring 2007. It was a scary process for me since it was the first time and though I created the dance, never had performed it. My father passed away during the process and deeply affected my ability to get it where it needed to be. The students did a great job but this time at SMU, it has already gone to a deeper place.
DBEW was created when my company was in Minneapolis. I set it two years ago on the Zenon Dance Company there. My former assistant Joanne Spencer helped with that reconstruction as did two other dancers from the original cast. It was a profoundly emotional experience. Dance truly lives on in the bodies of the dancers who created it — the steps, the intent, the intricacies, the memories. I learned so much from them about the work — things I created but ultimately knew little about. I saw Zenon’s opening night and the dance was truly reborn. The dancers in the original cast and at Zenon were in their 30’s and 40’s with lots of life experience. The challenge setting EW on students is to get them to the same place. We have had discussions about the work in relation to current events and I have shared an amazing documentary about James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, with them. I am very excited about the work they are doing.
Ezekiel’s Wheel; Photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University
What inspired you to first create Ezekiel’s Wheel, and why have you decided to restage it now?
DBI discovered the work of James Baldwin while living and dancing in Europe in the mid-1970’s. I was feeling homesick for the States and went to my favorite bookstore in Zurich, looking for a distinctively “American” novel. I picked up Go Tell It on the Mountain. It took my breath away. The writing was so poetic. The life and people it described were completely outside my experience. It was an America I knew nothing about. I bought Another Country next and ultimately read everything, including the amazing essays.
DBMy company performed and I taught a lot at Jacob’s Pillow from the mid-80’s to late 90’s. People kept telling me I should meet a composer/vocalist named Philip Hamilton. Apparently people were telling him we would be great collaborators. We were never in the same place at the same time until he came to the Pillow to accompany Judith Jamison’s master class. I went to hear him, he watched my jazz class and we knew we had to create something together. I had a collection of James Baldwin’s writings with me and I asked if he would be interested in doing something celebrating Baldwin’s life and work. He said yes. After rereading a lot of the work, we came upon three themes, Recognition, Responsibility and Redemption, which occurred over and over. We called them “The Three R’s of James Baldwin.” The dance is based on those themes.
How have the students adapted to the work? The material is very serious and rooted in history, have they found connections to it?
DB EW is rooted in history but it is their history. In my classes, I always talk about the fact the history of jazz music and dance is the history of race in America. We talk a lot about the civil rights movement. I have a lot of amazing books of photos from that time. In the Blues section, there are movement sequences based upon specific photographs.
What do you hope the audience gleans from the work?
DBI hope to honor and pay tribute to the courage with which James Baldwin lived his extraordinary and inspirational life. He continues to inspire me to this day. The dance has darkness and anger in it, for sure, but it ends with what I call an Anthem of Hope. Here’s hoping!