On a Wednesday afternoon in May, choreographer Denis Jones presents several musical numbers at the NY press event for Mary Poppins at Papermill Playhouse. Seeing his work again reminds me what a clever and creative choreographer he is. His inventive dances burst with a cheerfulness that light up the rehearsal room. At forty-nine, the mild-mannered Jones still retains a boyish quality which could easily rival that of his enthusiastic young hoofers. Step in Time, the number they just presented, is a showstopper!
Dennis grew up in San Francisco and was a self-professed theater kid. He was that boy who produced plays in the garage using his neighbors as the actors. Yes, the seed was planted early. A dancer since his youth, he’s watched the TONY Awards broadcast as far back as he can remember.
Since arriving in New York City he received his BFA from New York University and danced in five Broadway shows. After working as associate to Broadway choreographer Jerry Mitchell, Jones came into his own as choreographer for Honeymoon In Vegas in 2015. Earlier this season he designed the robust and dynamic dances for the Broadway production of Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical. The show, produced by Roundabout Theatre Company, was only scheduled for a limited run and closed in the middle of January.
When the Tony Award nominations came out on May 2nd, Jones’s name was announced in the Best Choreography category. No small feat considering this Broadway season was chock full of musicals (thirteen new and five revivals) vying for nominations.
Find out what Denis has to say about the TONYS, his choreography journey, and the magical musical, Mary Poppins.
Firstly, congratulations on your Tony Award nomination for Holiday Inn!
Thank you! It feels wonderful. Just to work on a show like that was honor enough, so this is like icing on the cake. It means a lot to me that a show that had a limited run is still remembered.
Where were you when you learned you were nominated?
I was sitting in my apartment watching the nominations on NY1. Actually, I had mixed feelings about it. I thought it might be easier to not watch and just go on with my life. I figured if something happened, then someone would call me. But since I had rehearsal that day I knew I was going to be up. Not turning on the television would be a bizarre and deliberate act, so I decided to be a grownup and tune in like anyone else. To be acknowledged this way is the most exciting moment I have ever experienced.
You were also nominated for the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Chita Rivera Awards. I bet it felt great to be recognized by those organizations as well.
It’s spectacular. I’m over the moon about the whole thing.
I recently re-watched a video of your terrific production number, Shaking The Blues Away. Your intricate tap rhythms and unique use of props made the number so joyous.
Thank you. It was very gratifying to hear an audience respond in the way that they did. It was the first number that I worked on in pre-production. I remember sending my associate choreographer, Barry Busby, to the hardware store to get some rope. I was trying to think of all the elements that would be in the room while the kids decorate for Christmas. Naturally there would be Christmas garlands, ornaments, boxes, bows, and the tree. So I started to play with the idea of how all of those things could also dance. Having been blessed with a tremendous ensemble of very exciting and athletic dancers was also a big help. They were up for anything. I feel like we very much held hands and took the leap together in order to discover the movement. Also, when you have a song like “Shaking the Blues Away” you’re already halfway there.
What was the catalyst that made you give up performing and move into choreography?
I have to say that Jerry Mitchell ultimately lit that fire for me. Aside from dancing for him on Broadway, I also performed in Broadway Bares that he conceived and directed. After a few years of doing that show I started to assist him on it. Once I had an idea for a number that I told Jerry about and he said to just go ahead and choreograph it. That was the time I started developing my own choreography.
What a great opportunity for you.
At that time I had already been an associate to Jerry on a couple of Broadway shows. I really started to be aware of what his process was. How he ran the room and how he spoke to dancers was very inspiring to me.
You were fortunate to move through the ranks of performer, to assistant, to associate choreographer. I imagine that was very beneficial.
Absolutely. It began for me when I started being a dance captain on Broadway shows. That gave me an opportunity to maintain the show and teach new cast members the choreography. Not only did being a dance captain help me to become an authority figure, but I also learned to develop my own language when sharing the choreography.
What traits do you look for in dancers that audition for you?
I’m certainly looking for dancers who have good training, can sing well, and are appropriate for the show. I find that I end up hiring the dancers that make me smile. I have the great fortune of working on shows that are considered to be feel-good projects. I found a bunch of dancers that make me smile in this production of Mary Poppins. These kids are fantastically delightful.
Speaking of Mary Poppins, how did this show at Paper Mill come about for you?
I’ve had a relationship with the playhouse and artistic director Mark Hoebee for several years now. This will be my ninth production with him– the last one being the pre-Broadway tryout of Honeymoon in Vegas. It’s really nice to do a show there again as I feel like I’m coming home. Mark gave me my first break at the playhouse with Meet Me In St Louis. I have tremendous gratitude for him for starting me out on my choreography journey. It’s always a pleasure to work for both he and the theater—it’s a great organization.
Were you a fan on the Julie Andrews film when you were a child?
I love the film and I was a big fan of the Broadway show. When I saw the show on Broadway I had a house seat and was sitting very close to the stage. At the end of the show when Mary flew over my head, I may or may not have shed a tear. And by that, I mean I cried.
Do you remain reverent to the source material?
I’m such an admirer of both versions that I feel an obligation to uphold the spirit I believe both of them embody. Our production has some new ideas but will honor the book, the film, and the Broadway show. I cannot tell you how fond I am of this group of people—I think the show is going to be dynamite.
Can you tell me about some of your upcoming projects?
I’m excited about doing the lab of a new musical about Judy Garland called Chasing Rainbows. Then I’m off to the MUNY to do a new production of A Chorus Line, Honeymoon in Vegas in Chicago, and Crazy For You at the Signature Theatre in Arlington. I’ve got to start coming up with some steps!
Thank you so much, Denis. I wish you the best at the TONY Awards!
Thank you, Bob. That was very kind of you.
The 2017 Tony Awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City, on Sunday, June 11th at 8pm (EST) on CBS.
Mary Poppins begins performances at the Paper Mill Playhouse on May 24th. For additional information, visit www.papermill.org
About the Author
Bob Rizzo began The Dance Coach as a valuable resource for aspiring dancers, teachers and choreographers looking for professional feedback on technique, performance and choreography. And for those who aspire to a career in dance, The Dance Coach is a trusted advisor offering career coaching and advice based on more than 30 years of professional experience in the dance world! The Dance Coach Blog focuses on dance related topics and people working in the entertainment industry. It features a mix of interviews, tips for dancers, performance reviews, and training opportunities. Read Bob Rizzo’s full bio here.