Dallas — Danny Buraczeski, retiring dance faculty member at Southern Methodist University, has shared a rare gift in his 13-year tenure at the school—the art of jazz dance.
It seems like an odd statement, as jazz seems to be everywhere. We find it in musical theater, as performed by successful theater programs in high schools and colleges, plus the multitude of organizations either staging musicals or bringing in national tours. The famous Texas drill teams and most area studios heavily rely on it, and let’s not forget about its ubiquity in reality television.
But beyond Dance Moms, conventions, competitions, and entertainment remain a few choreographers and companies committed to jazz as a concert dance form, the focal point of Buraczeski’s decades-long career. His aim has been to develop and grow the techniques and qualities of this truly American genre, while preserving its original characteristics.
SMU’s Meadows Dance Ensemble's Spring Dance Concert 2018 celebrates his achievements with a series of shows dedicated to his body of work. Joining the Meadows students are alumni Adrián Aguirre and Albert Drake (well-known in the Dallas dance community) and Minneapolis-based Zenon Dance Company, a modern and jazz repertory troupe on whom Buraczeski has set several works. They present seven total pieces across the five-day run, but some shows have a different lineup. This review is for Wednesday evening’s performance.
Several aspects set his choreography apart from the commercial and trick-based jazz, and while his movement signatures thread through all five pieces on opening night, each work highlights a unique element.
Most notable among them is his use of strong lines and the manner in which his dancers arrive at those shapes. It’s the most obvious motif in the first work, In the City from 2013, and sets the tone for the unique vocabulary that pervades the evening. The ladies’ cast don colorful 1950s style dresses, while those in men’s roles wear khaki pants and white dress shirts.
With Leonard Bernstein’s music as the soundtrack, the first two sections present a more easy-going vibe, then the pace quickens for the final number. The performers hit positions with force, but not so much that it turns explosive. This creates a sense of energetic ease that proves to be a fascinating pattern throughout the evening.
Another remarkable quality is Buraczeski’s way in which the subtle becomes fantastic, an underlying theme of theatrical dance overall. Aguirre and Drake deliver a duet with chairs that’s reminiscent of Fred Astaire, but not because of their tuxedos. Ordinary movements like smoothing the hair, adjusting shirt cuffs, and straightening jackets take on a beautiful elegance to the smooth sounds of Billy Strayhorn. Turns and other dance-like maneuvers pop up here and there, but it’s the pedestrian vocabulary that appears especially intriguing.
The most beautiful work of the evening, Song Awakened featuring Zenon company members, demonstrates his eloquent and thoughtful use of space. A completely separate review could describe and analyze this work set to the rich and sensual music of Cesária Évora, but the most phenomenal feature is how Buraczeski manipulates floor patterns, facings, and the dancers’ focus to redefine a repetitive movement. The symmetry and seamless transitions grow only more fascinating with the performers’ execution.
Clad in subtly tie-dyed, free-flowing costumes in various muted jewel tones, a duet with Leslie O’Neilla and Tristan Koepke begins with arm patterns methodically exploring every dimension of the space around them. That precision becomes even more satisfying juxtaposed with Latin social steps that match the smooth music and luscious Portuguese lyrics of the Cape Verdean vocalist. Throughout the work, the dancers’ personalities shine through, yet at the same time they move with incredible unity. Zenon Dance Company needs to come to Big D more often.
A colorful Points on a Curve, restaged by Mariusz Olszewski, brings back the SMU students delivering two distinct flavors. A duet displays a buoyant quality with a balletic style, while a ladies trio finds a funky groove. The bright visual shifts to pleasing silhouettes to close out the work.
The last one in the program, Swing Concerto, progresses as a sort of “greatest hits” piece. Eastern European klezmer music with the sounds of American swing orchestras pair quite lovely together, and combined with more dramatic, uplifting movement (with Khris Beeson, Ke’ala O’Connell, and Kyle Sangil in a fabulous featured trio), Buraczeski presents a spicy number that proves the most exciting. In addition to incorporating motifs found in the previous four pieces, he adds in some good old-fashioned Jack Cole knee slides, then closes it out with the iconic jazz song “Sing Sing Sing” by Benny Goodman.
Can one really have a classical jazz dance concert without it?