A Love Affair With Dance; A Dance Network Exclusive Interview With Broadway’s JoAnn M. Hunter

by Michael Mahany | 12/19/2017 7:04 PM


 

JoAnn M. Hunter. Photo Credit: LSG Public Relations

 

“As for a show biz family? Well that was not us,” JoAnn M Hunter told me as I prepared questions for our exclusive Dance Network interview, “No one in my family ventured into theatre or any of the performing arts.  I was, and am the lone wolf.”

 

JoAnn M. Hunter was born in Japan into a military family, but at a young age moved to the US and grew up in the town of Coventry, Rhode Island.

 

“My Mother always had a love for dance but her parents were too poor and did not allow her to study dance.  One day, when I was 10 or 11 years old, she asked if I wanted to take a ballet class. I did and my love affair began.”

 

That love affair has led to career in dance and theatre that has spanned over two decades, with partnerships and collaborations with just about every name in the Broadway catalogue.

 

As a performer, Ms. Hunter has been seen in over twelve Broadway shows from Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, to Steel Pier, to Thoroughly Modern Millie. She’s worked with choreographers like Gwen Verdon, Rob Ashford, Rob Marshall, Wayne Cilento, Jerome Robbins, Bill T. Jones, and more. She’s held every position imaginable within a company of performers— on both Broadway and in touring companies: original cast member, replacement cast member, swing, dance captain, assistant choreographer, associate choreographer, understudy, ensemble, principal actress— you name it, she’d done it.

 

JoAnn M. Hunter (center) with Michael Mayer (left) and Peter Parnell (right). Photo Credit: BroadwayWorld.com

 

In recent years, however, Ms. Hunter has moved toward the other side of the table, making a name for herself as a choreographer in her own right. Her work, creating the dance and movement for Broadway’s School Of Rock, just recently celebrated its two year anniversary on the Great White Way, and now has a West End company in the UK and a national touring company taking the show across the US. Her production of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, her first stand alone venture as a choreographer back in 2011, starred a budding Jessie Mueller alongside Harry Connick Jr. and was directed by TONY® award wining Michael Mayer, a partner with whom Hunter had worked numerous times as a performer and associate. Her most recent Broadway undertaking was building the dance for Seth Rudedsky’s all too short lived Disaster!.

 

She’s also spent time choreographing off of the Broadway boards recently. Having put together shows like She Loves Me with Roundabout Theatre Company, birthday benefits for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, galas for the Drama League, or creating work with reputable regional theatre companies around the country, Ms. Hunter stays quite busy. She’s also in the process of building an original piece called Perfect Spiral.




JoAnn M. Hunter working in the studio. Photo Credit: CBS

 

On top of the various productions of School Of Rock, Ms. Hunter’s work can also be seen right now, just over the Hudson river from New York City. Running through the rest of the holiday season, the acclaimed Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey is running a production of Annie featuring Ms. Hunter’s choreography.

 

This passed week, Dance Network was able to score an exclusive interview with the renowned choreographer. We asked her about her rich history and body of work with so many legendary names, how it feels to be breaking the Broadway glass ceiling, and what else she wants to accomplish in her extraordinary career. Read the full interview below:

 

Dance Network: So… you’re killing it right now! You’ve got School Of Rock currently running on Broadway, in the UK, and now on a US tour, you did Disaster and On A Clear Day all in the last few seasons, and Annie running over at Paper Mill. Looking at the different styles in all of those pieces, tell us a little bit about your pre-production creative process. Where do you find your inspiration for movement, and how do you allow yourself to adapt so keenly to style?

 

JoAnn M. Hunter: Pre production for me starts with the book.  The book, the time period, the style, where it takes place. When working on a period piece I love to look at photos or art work of the time, and so often my inspiration for movement comes from images.  Now, I always say that we are doing a “theatrical piece” not a documentary, so I feel you can be inspired by the period but you must then find your own voice in how you want the movement to evolve. I, along with my dance arranger, [will get together and] play in a studio and work on evolving the song— if need be— to further the plot with movement or dance.  My movement, I hope, is always based in story telling. I cannot just make up dance steps for the sake of steps, I need to always have a point of view, an arch.

 


JoAnn M. Hunter at the opening of Disaster! on Broadway. Photo Credit: BroadwayWorld.com

 

DN: Speaking of point of view and style, as you were coming up earlier in your career you performed for, assisted, or acted as an associate to a plethora of different choreographers— Jerome Robbins, Rob Ashford, Bill T. Jones, Susan Stroman, Wayne Cilento, Rob Marshall, Gwen Verdon, Bob Avian, and more— how do you think all of those different voices affected the way you work and the kind of work your produce?

 

JMH: Oh, I had the great honor to work with such talented choreographers and directors.  I think they have all influenced me, some more than others but only because some “spoke” to me more, but I took something away from each creative I have ever had the opportunity to work for.  In experiencing life, we learn, we grow, and then we forge our own journey.  It is the same when I create; those amazing artists are always in my head, but then you must trust you own voice and move forward.

 


JoAnn M. Hunter working on School Of Rock. Photo Credit: BroadwayWorld.com

 

DN: You’re in a business that has traditionally had a heavy male influence, although it seems that glass ceiling is on the precipice of changing. These days though, women like you, Kelly Devine, Peggy Hickey, Susan Stroman, Kathleen Marshall and others are taking over Broadway— how does it feel to be one of the strong female voices in the echelon of Broadway choreographers?

 

JMH: Well I am beyond honored to be named among these brilliant women!!! Thank you for that. It is a hard road that we travel, has been, and still is. I was just having a conversation today with some of my peers; I do not want to be hired because I am a woman, I want to be hired because I have the voice that can further a show’s story.  It is a doubled edged sword in a way.

I think most women want to be hired for their work, not for their sex.  But it is important that the world see and give us the opportunity to show you what we are capable of— and we are capable of a lot!

 

DN: As an artist of a cultural minority yourself, what do you think of the movement toward more colorful and inclusive casting and creative teams in the Broadway scene? And, how do you think it’s going?

 

JMH: I think the movement toward more inclusive teams on Broadway is progressing but it has a long way to go. In terms of casting I think we are making great headway, but as I said, there’s always more room to grow indeed. In terms of the creative side…. well, that seems slower.

 

DN: What else do you hope to accomplish? How do you want to see your career continue to grow?

 

JMH: Oh Wow…. I want to be challenged. I want to create. I want to work with new voices out there.  I want to get my piece called Perfect Spiral up on it’s feet. [It’s a piece where]  I use football as a metaphor to tell or question a story of identity mainly through dance and found text.

 


JoAnn M. Hunter leading rehearsal for The Nutty Professor. Photo Credit: TPAC

 

DN: Well that sounds awesome! We’ll definitely check back in on that. One last question before we let you go, and it’s one on which we always like to end; with all your experience as a dancer, performer, and choreographer, what advice do you have for the next generation of dancers?

 

JMH: I get asked this question so often.  Dancers are a rare breed. We are not unlike athletes.  It takes perseverance, tenacity, discipline, and the absolute love and joy for it is not an easy path. Expect nothing but want and fight for everything.  

 

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Want more JoAnn M. Hunter? You can read more, watch her dance reel, and see more career highlights about JoAnn at her website, www.JoAnnMHunter.com. You can also follow her on Twitter, or check out the full list of shows she’s worked on over at IBDB.com.