“…To be acknowledged with a Tony nomination? I'm the luckiest guy in New York.” - Denis Jones
We’re only THREE WEEKS away from the LIVE 2017 TONY® Awards Telecast on June 11th, so over here at Dance Network, we’re continuing our weekly blog series spotlighting the nominees for Best Choreography. This week, we’re focused in on the choreographer of the musical based on the 1942 film of the same name, Holiday Inn’s Denis Jones.
Denis Jones began his career, as many of the great choreographers do, dancing on Broadway. He made his debut as a performer in the 1998 revival of Little Me, but it was his next Broadway gig, The Full Monty, where a professional connection and almost apprentice-like relationship began to blossom. Broadway great Jerry Mitchell, who’s guidance helped launch Mr. Jones’ career on the other side of the creative table, choreographed the show.
Jerry Mitchell (left) and Denis Jones/Broadway World
While he served as Mr. Mitchell’s Dance Captain on both The Full Monty and Never Gonna Dance— and later as associate choreographer on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Legally Blonde— Denis’ collaboration with the legendary Jerry Mitchell would grow to include some memorable philanthropic work as well. Through Broadway Bares, the annual charitable performance that Jerry Mitchell created through Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Jones provided input on movement and direction; he also directed four of the productions on his own.
Jones has since choreographed and directed in venues all over the country, including work on the Kennedy Center Honors, The Public’s Shakespeare In The Park series, St. Louis’ MUNY, Goodspeed Opera House, and more.
In early 2015, when the Paper Mill Playhouse transferred its production of Honeymoon In Vegas to the Nederlander Theatre, Jones made his debut as a Broadway choreographer.
Gaelen Gilliland, an actress who worked on Honeymoon In Vegas, spoke with Dance Network about what it was like working with Jones on his first trip to Broadway as the sole choreographer.
“Working with Denis Jones on Honeymoon in Vegas was such a treat because, [for me], as a ‘good-mover’ and not an accomplished ‘dancer-dancer’, I loved how he'd push me to higher limits than I knew I had. I felt TRUSTED to execute his choreography in a way that allowed me to bring my own personality to it, and not [feel] the least bit self conscious that I wasn't as ‘accomplished’ as some on that stage— all while still knowing I looked great up there. Doing his choreography just made sense in my body in a way that I could express the intent of the number or scene.”
Honeymoon In Vegas/New York Times
When asked how it felt to perform Jones’ movement each night, Gilliland added, “It just felt wonderful to be on a Broadway stage performing great choreography that made sense to the feel, flavor and genre of the musical!”
In the fall of 2016, Jones made his second trip to the Great White Way as choreographer with Holiday Inn, and it has since garnered him a 2017 TONY® nomination for Best Choreography.
Victor J. Wisehart, a performer who worked on Holiday Inn spoke about his time in the rehearsal room with Jones.
“During the creative process on Holiday Inn, working with Denis Jones was an actor’s dream. He came in with a very clear outline of the steps, their form, function, and design, and then he constructed a very clear picture focusing the lens around the storyline. It was that focus on story-driven movement that always filled the choreography with intention and never left an actor dancing just ‘steps’— but instead, constantly communicating with either each other and the audience. It was very active.
Denis also has a great gift of being very verbally articulate— and yet, is open for collaboration from the cast when the right moment presents itself.”
Holiday Inn rehearsals/Jenny Anderson
Amy Van Norstrand who also worked on Holiday Inn said, “Working with Denis Jones on Holiday Inn Broadway was the most rewarding experience of my career thus far. As a choreographer, Denis is extremely collaborative. He makes all his team members and company members feel incredibly valued and respected.”
When asked about the rehearsal process, Van Norstrand said, “We had a ton of preproduction before rehearsals, and then [once rehearsals began we] were constantly changing, tweaking, and asking questions of the piece… but it never felt like work. That's probably because working for Denis is always fun, [and] I was very lucky to have been on his dance team. I learned so much from him and [from his] associate. Denis focused so much on the story and artistry of the movement— and it's an amazing gift when performers get the opportunity to tell a truthful, honest, and entertaining story through dance. He allowed so much of himself and each individual to be brought to each number. It was an incredibly vulnerable, yet, safe space he created, and I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.”
Dance Network asked both Wisehart and Van Norstand about performing Jones’ choreography each night.
“I will never forget the first time we performed ‘Shakin' the Blues Away’ on opening night at Studio 54. The audience was electric and that was because of Denis' insanely clever staging and choreography set to Irving Berlin’s iconic music. That number [was] genius! And, he choreographed twelve other numbers of the same ingenuity,” said Van Norstand. “Every step was carefully selected based on what would advance the narrative, and for a performer, that [effort] is not only valuable, but meaningful. It makes every person onstage, no matter how big or small their part, feel like they are adding to the greater good of the piece. It's also just plain fun! Denis' style is zany… it's like combining an insanely cool kid and a nerdy kid to make this interesting non-perfect human. It makes his choreography relatable, clear, and easy to understand for the audience. As a member of his ensemble, it was the most rewarding experience to take the audience on a journey through dance and watch them sit back and simply be entertained. Performing his choreography every night was, in a word, magical.”
“[For me] Performing Denis’ choreography on Broadway each night was a gift, and one that you readily shared with the audience. It was magical to develop ‘Shakin’ the Blues Away’ and watch the audience unravel, much like our Christmas garlands, as each section of the dance built to higher levels of elation and show-stoping energetic tap dancing,” said Wisehart. “As a member of the ‘Big Jump Rope’ the amount of focus it took to swing that rope around the girls perfectly every time in complete unison with their choreography was intense, but the payoff of the crowd was an incredible raucous reward. Tears of joy from every age, nation, and creed, was something I will never forget.”
Holiday Inn/Joan Marcus
Dance Network reached out to Denis Jones to find out more about his inspiration for the movement in the show and to get his reaction to the TONY® nomination.
“I found great inspiration from movie musicals of the golden era. The Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire years. So smooth and stylish, dancing with such joy and optimism. Those movies shaped my life and my aesthetic and DEFINITELY informed my work on Holiday Inn,” Jones told Dance Network. “It was my great pleasure to find dancers who had an appreciation for the style of those films but also had the youth and athleticism to help me imagine this classic choreography through a slightly more contemporary lens. The collaboration I shared with them was essential to what I created for the show and it was very gratifying to see that work on the Broadway stage. And THEN to be acknowledged with a Tony nomination? I'm the luckiest guy in New York.”