Writing for Vanity Fair in 1987, Michael Shnayerson described the devastation of AIDS on New York’s art and fashion worlds. Painters, photographers, directors, dancers, actors, fashion designers, interior designers, makeup artists, musicians, singers, models, writers, editors, agents, critics and gallery managers were dying, most quietly, often alone.
Back then, many believed that HIV could be transmitted by a touch, a sneeze, drinking from a water fountain or breathing the same air.
“As they die,” Shnayerson wrote, “their absence assumes a peculiar resonance, as if so many children playing in a forest vanished one by one, until the few who remained suddenly stopped to listen to the stillness.”
Closer to home, the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company, founded in 1975 by Zoe Sealy, had five male choreographers: William Harren, Jeffrey Mildenstein, Clarence Teeters, David Voss and Danny Buraczeski.
By 1991, all but Buraczeski were dead.
This weekend at the O’Shaughnessy, decades of stillness will end as former MJDC member Karla Grotting and Eclectic Edge Ensemble present “Lost Voices in Jazz: The Choreographers of the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company.” Dances by Harren, Mildenstein, Teeters and Voss will come to life on the stage. Buraczeski will return from Dallas, where he moved in 2005, to give a solo performance. Sealy will dance a recent work about the loss of her husband. The audience will include family members and friends of the four who were lost to AIDS.
Will these be terribly sad events? “I don’t think so,” Grotting said in an interview last Friday. “I think it’s going to be a night of remembering and honoring. I think we’ll feel sad about the lost potential. We’re going to see these works and go – wow, I wonder what we’d have?”
A handful of heritage seeds
“If you look at Danny’s 35-year body of work – sophisticated, intellectual, musical, emotional, classic jazz works – it’s incredible,” Grotting said. “If we’d had that times five we would have had new techniques, new ways of training dancers, new companies for dancers to work in, more choreographers.
“It would have been this jungle, this wild garden, and I feel, at the end of putting these dances together, like I have a little handful of heritage seeds, and in having this performance I’m going to plant them again.”
Jazz dance, like jazz music, is fighting marginalization. Both “sort of suffer from the J-word.” What’s labeled jazz dance today is usually “virtuosic ballet technique and tricks mixed with hip-hop accents and grooves performed to popular music.” Grotting hopes that “Lost Voices” will gain attention and momentum for jazz dance as an art form.
“Setting [these dances] on a new generation of dancers is one step,” she said. “Showing them to a new audience is another. I’m hoping that some of these seeds are going to get planted and grow into a new kind of hybrid and feed the form of American concert jazz dance to help make it not such a lonely place.”
Reconstructing the dances
Staging dances by the four choreographers lost to AIDS was not a simple matter of watching videos or following diagrams. Grotting, who first had this crazy notion in 2013, spent countless hours researching, then laboriously reconstructing the dances, working from dark, decaying bits of video from the 1980s (which require vintage equipment to view, so there was that), her own mental and physical memories (Grotting worked with with Harren, Teeters and Voss) and interviews with family members and friends she tracked down over the Internet, including one dancer everyone thought died long ago.
“It’s easy to make fun of Facebook,” she said, “but it helped me find people I didn’t even know I needed to find.”
An abbreviated example: Grotting’s determination to reconstruct a dance by Mildenstein, the only choreographer of the four she never worked with and didn’t know, led her to Giordano Dance in Chicago, where Mildenstein once danced, and to Western Kentucky University, where he taught before he died, and finally to a record label in Japan. Then the Eclectic Edge dancers had to learn the dance from a student video. After months of work, there’s a seven-minute piece on the program called “Natural Woman.”
Grotting learned that Mildenstein was already very ill when he was making “Natural Woman.” It was the last piece he ever created. “Each of these artists worked way past the point their bodies allowed them to. They were in a a fever of creativity to finish things.”
For Grotting, the entire “Lost Voices” project has been personal. “When each of these men passed, I was in my twenties. I thought – I’ve lost my friend, I’ve lost my teacher, I’ve lost my choreographer. Now that I’m in my fifties, working in this form, teaching, choreographing, performing and dancing, I can look back and see what a devastating impact it was to lose them.
“Modern dance companies and ballet companies also lost choreographers and dancers in record numbers, but there were fewer jazz choreographers to begin with, so [these losses] really left a void, an empty space.”
Once she dove in, Grotting realized she had several goals. “One was to bring the families of these artists back together again, because there is a lot of healing that needs to happen.”
Another was to honor Sealy and the MJDC, and to add to the historical record about the company. “We’re putting her archive together [for the Performing Arts Archives at the U of M’s Andersen Library], and I wanted people to come home and record interviews so those could go in the archive and she could see how far her influence spread. I wanted our dancers to come home and see her vibrant and working.”
More goals: to improve HIV/AIDS awareness and increase support for those living with HIV/AIDS. “I have a lot of interaction with young people,” Grotting said (she teaches dance at the U and is a visiting guest artist at St. Olaf College), “and I hear them talk about everything, but I never hear them talk about being afraid to get AIDS. There’s a real social amnesia about it. So we’re partnering with Open Arms of Minnesota and the Aliveness Project.”
Was there ever a point when Grotting had had enough and needed a break? “The minute you go into the studio, you’re connected to the art and you’re not thinking about the sad story around it. Being in a studio full of dancers is the best place. Dancers give their whole heart, and they all cared about the work as much as I did.
“The larger story is that the art [of these four choreographers] isn’t dead, but if we didn’t put these pieces back together now, it would certainly fade away.”
What can we expect at the O’Shaughnessy? “What has surprised me most about the dances is they don’t look dated to me. They look very fresh. … There are so many ways into this project that you don’t need to love dance or love jazz or be interested in political action to find your way in.”
Remember the AIDS Quilt? One thing Grotting wishes she had done for this weekend was to bring in and display the quilt squares for Harren, Teeters and Voss. Mildenstein doesn’t have a square, but Grotting has some quilters in her family, and she’d like to make him a square.
“Lost Voices in Jazz: Choreographers of the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company” has two performances this weekend at the O’Shaughnessy: Friday and Saturday, July 24 and 25, both at 7:30. Friday’s performance features a talk back after the show. FMI and tickets ($26/$22/$20).