The term ``jazz dance'' is a misnomer, since the dancers who use this label are usually associated with show music or pop and rock, rather than jazz. Seldom does a jazz dance company confine itself to dancing only to jazz music. But there is a dance company that calls itself ``Jazzdance'' and is true to the name. It's Danny Buraczeski's eight-member troupe, and they dance exclusively to Brubeck, Ellington, Mingus, Hampton, and other bona fide jazz greats.
The company was formed by Mr. Buraczeski in 1979 and has performed in New York and elsewhere in the United States, including the Jacob's Pillow and American Dance Festivals. Buraczeski, who grew up in a coal mining town in northern Pennsylvania where jazz was virtually unknown, credits his father for introducing him to jazz: ``He was a big-band music fan, so, when I started the dance company, we used that sort of music - music that is tied to social dancing.''
But later on, Buraczeski heard other kinds of jazz. ``The first album I heard was Dave Brubeck's `Time Out.' I thought it was so weird, I said, `Take it off!' But the first piece I choreographed when I went from big-band music into other jazz was a Brubeck piece.'' From there Buraczeski has ventured into the music of Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus.
Why did Buraczeski choose jazz? Aside from a natural love of the music, he says, ``Most people don't understand jazz too well. I wanted to do jazz dancing in a concert form. People have used jazz in dance, but like wallpaper, as background music. `Jazz dancing' is usually show business, but I wanted to take it out of the show context and create something that stands on its own.''
At a recent series of performances here at Marymount Manhattan Theatre, Buraczeski displayed his extraordinary skill at bringing jazz alive through dance. The performance began with ``Wind Waltzes,'' to music more or less in 3/4 time, by Dave Brubeck: ``Three to Get Ready,'' ``It's a Raggy Waltz,'' and ``Lost Waltz.'' The dancers swirled on and off the stage with a sense of motion that was melded, but not strapped, to the music - the mood was gently playful and unpretentiously joyful. The slightest shrug of the shoulder or nod of the head would highlight a certain phrase or accent in the music - giving an added dimension to Brubeck's complex rhythms.
Buraczeski premi`ered his new work, ``Theme and Reflections,'' based on the music of Charles Mingus, specifically ``Pithycanthropus Erectus'' and ``The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife.'' The theme is a portrayal of evolution, with the dancers (dressed in tan leotards imprinted with red bones) emerging from behind the curtain in crouched positions, gradually elevating themselves to the status of modern man. In ``Reflections,'' the dancers don red T-shirts, the mark of civilization, and with bodies uplifted and open, consider the memory of what man once was - symbolized by one T-shirtless dancer. Their movements tell a story, while enhancing the subtle humor and wild abandon of Mingus's music.
But the gem of the evening was a piece I've seen four times before and have watched develop. ``Lost Life,'' the most programmatic of Buraczeski's pieces, is the life story of Art Pepper, the talented alto saxophonist whose life was riddled with drugs and lawlessness. It's an affecting portrayal that moves from Pepper's boyhood to his eventual downfall through drugs. But it's not a depressing piece - there's even a boisterous, jubilant section in which the young Pepper first discovers the wonders of girls. Buraczeski slithers across the floor, quivering with boyish delight, grabbing at the hem of his future wife's skirt (Jane Blount) to the music of Pepper's charming and playful ``Art's Oregano.''
The seven other members of Jazzdance are all fine interpreters of Buraczeski's material, especially Les Johnson and Abby Levine, and Yloy Ybara, who was wonderfully sinister as the drug dealer in ``Lost Life.''
Jazzdance will be winding up a two-day run today at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C.