When Twin Cities dancer Karla Grotting decided to reconstruct a 1981 work called “The Nutleys of Nubec” by the late jazz choreographer Clarence Teeters — she had two dancers perfect for Mr. and Mrs. Nutley — she began thinking about the loss of Teeters and so many other artists to AIDS.
Had they lived, what could they have contributed?
Of five male choreographers at the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company (MJDC), where Grotting danced in her late teens and early 20s, four died of AIDS by 1991.
“It felt like a very personal loss,” she said. “Certainly ballet companies and modern dance companies had devastating losses, too, but there were so few jazz choreographers that I think it made a bigger impact. We have not a vacant lot, but a small stand of trees versus the kind of wild garden I think we would have had.”
Grotting has teamed up with Eclectic Edge Ensemble for “Lost Voices in Jazz: The Choreographers of the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company,” two concerts next weekend featuring reconstructed pieces by the four choreographers who died — Teeters, William Harren, Jeffrey Mildenstein and David Voss — in addition to archival video and interviews, plus works by Danny Buraczeski and MJDC founder Zoe Sealy.
The one living male choreographer to set work for MJDC, Buraczeski has gone on to create a rich body of “incredible, musical, sophisticated, elegant, emotional jazz dances,” Grotting said. “If we had that, times five, in a variety of different styles and angles, we’d have so many more jazz dancers, jazz teachers, new jazz techniques, and more works.”
The four lost voices
Sealy’s piece “At the End of the Day,” created in 2008 after the death of her husband, will find new resonance in the context of “Lost Voices.”
Sealy, who ran MJDC from 1975 to 1988, met Teeters and Mildenstein when they were dancing with the great jazz choreographer Gus Giordano, who had a company and school in Chicago. Teeters had expressed interest in doing more choreography. Sealy’s group was young and didn’t have a budget for big New York choreographers, so she took a chance on him.
She also commissioned Mildenstein, a “knock-your-socks-off dancer” who began studying in Giordano’s studio at age 17.
While Harren’s background was in modern dance, dancing with MJDC made him want to learn more about jazz. When he expressed interest in choreographing for the company, Sealy agreed: “I thought it would be a good stretch for the dancers.”
Voss, finally, was “a veritable institution in the community for many years,” Sealy said. Trained as a musician, he learned to dance from Loyce Houlton and eventually worked with her as a dancer and teacher at the Contemporary Dance Playhouse, which became Minnesota Dance Theatre. He went on to earn a master’s degree in dance composition from the University of Minnesota, where he taught alongside Sealy.
‘It was a very dark time’
Buraczeski didn’t collaborate with MJDC until 1986, but he remembers well the early part of that decade, when he was living in New York City and buddies in his dance classes would just suddenly stop coming.
“Nobody really knew what was going on until it was there and people started getting sick,” he said. “It was really disconcerting. They just kind of disappeared. It was a very dark time.”
Buraczeski, who now teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, will perform “Le Souvenir,” a solo work he created in 1992 that employs a handkerchief as a signifier of how memories live in the senses. For him, the piece is about how “dance is only alive when you are doing it,” which is why he’s excited about the concert presenting work from choreographers who have passed on.
“Bringing these voices back is just so incredible,” he said.
Dennis Kelly, who danced with MJDC in the 1970s, plans to be at the performance, as do many other former members as well as families and friends of the choreographers.
“It raises a lot of emotions for me,” said Kelly, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Doctors initially told him he had two years to live. While he survived, he saw many friends fall victim to the disease, and he cared for several people, including his partner and brother, in their final days.
The dancers from Eclectic Edge Ensemble, who will perform the reconstructed works along with guest artists, “are really integral to this project,” Grotting said. As a 12-year-old company that provides training and performance opportunities for jazz dancers — many of them graduates of the University of Minnesota’s dance department from an era when they had eight levels of jazz dance — “they are really uniquely qualified to approach this work,” she said.
Grotting likens the project to having a handful of heritage seeds: “I want to plant them again and see what comes up.”
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer.