Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin choreographer Denis Jones spoke with education dramaturg Ted Sod about his inspirations and the process of working on the version of a classic film.
Ted Sod: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and educated? Why did you want to become a theatre choreographer? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?
Denis Jones: I grew up in San Francisco and then moved to New York, where I went to NYU as an acting major. I was a theatre kid from my earliest memories, inspired by the movie musicals I saw on TV, as well as the local theatre and touring shows I attended. My parents were very supportive of my interest in theatre, and I started dance class when I was in third grade, as well as acting classes at ACT. I performed on Broadway in a number of shows over a period of 15 years and was fortunate to work with choreographers like Rob Marshall, Rob Ashford, Tommy Tune, Ann Reinking, Jeff Calhoun, and Jerry Mitchell. I later became Jerry's associate on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Legally Blonde. He probably has had the most influence on me. His attention to the importance of choreography as an essential component of storytelling, as well as his relationship to his dancers as a compassionate leader, taught me a great deal, and I hope I carry that with me every day. I was very inspired by movie musicals as a kid. While my friends had posters of "Star Wars", the walls of my room were covered with posters of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Their stylish and smooth athleticism had an enormous impact on me.
TS: How did you research the world of the play? How did you prepare to choreograph a stage version of a movie musical like this? Can you give us some insight into your process as a choreographer?
DJ: I have seen the Holiday Inn film many times and certainly hope that the stage adaptation celebrates the original, but my goals are not in any way to replicate the choreography. I am very inspired by the dances Fred Astaire does in the film (and what choreographer wouldn't be?), but Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical is its own thing, and the dances will be built for and on the amazing dancers in the cast. My only goal is to make them look good in a way that is authentic to them, not to try to impose someone else's style on them, while still honoring the genre and period. I often tell dancers, "If you don't look good, I don't look good." I see the film as an extremely exciting jumping-off place. My process always starts with the script and the music. I actually try to avoid doing any visual research of dance from the period until I’m very far down the road conceiving dances, as the work of others can get in my head in a way that hangs me up. I usually start in a dance studio alone with the music, and I walk around in a circle. I know that makes me sound like a crazy person, but that's what it is. I have a close circle of dancer friends/collaborators with whom I spend long days creating and filming dance, which I then spend my evenings pouring over. There are hundreds and hundreds of short videos of dance vocabulary for Holiday Inn. A lot of it gets thrown out, but I use them as puzzle pieces to put together a larger picture.
TS: What do you think the musical is about?
DJ: I think the musical is ultimately about discovering your authentic self and giving that place a home. Whether that be Jim wanting a simple life to share with the woman he loves or Ted only being interested in the bright lights of show business. This creates a tug of war with the women in their lives, but in the end everyone finds home.
TS: Were you at all influenced the original film choreography by Danny Dare?
DJ: I believe that, out of great respect for the film and for its choreography, that I am inspired by it but am in no way trying to replicate it. For starters, I consider it plagiarism, but more importantly, it was created at a certain time on a certain group of people. I think it would be reckless of me not to embrace the unique gifts of this cast I have the pleasure of working with to create dance that allows them authentic physical expression.
DJ: Collaborating with Gordon (which I have a number of times now) and Andy is a pleasure. I think mostly because the departmental lines are a bit blurry such that we can all meet in a grey area of sorts to discover what's best for the show, not just for one department. I certainly don't have all the answers going into a process and am dependent on a strong collaborative relationship. I particularly enjoy that process early on when you don't necessarily feel like you have to solve problems but see what doors start to open when facing challenges.
TS: What did you look for in casting the dancers?
DJ: Honestly, casting the dancers for Holiday Inn (and I saw many wonderful, highly-skilled dancers for this) came down to who made me smile. It was a very important component when casting dancers for a show like this. There is a great deal of dancing in the show, and New York is full of excellent dancers, but the ones who dance with joy and abandon, who are playful and mischievous when they dance, who dance as if nobody is watching them, those are the ones I'm most attracted to.
TS: What inspires you as an artist?
DJ: I am continually inspired by the dancers I work with. Sometimes I'll come into the room with an idea that seemed amazing in my head but makes no sense on actual bodies, and then, through the collaborative process with dancers and the sharing of ideas, a path starts to emerge and something magical happens. It's that collaboration that inspires me and is my favorite part. Some days it doesn't happen and we end up with nothing, but some days I walk out of the studio being the happiest guy in New York.
Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical begins previews at Studio 54 on September 1. Click here for tickets and more information.