with JoAnn Jansen,
choreographer of the up-coming movie
‘Take The Lead’
aris-dance.com: Why are you in Canada, are you working on another film?
JoAnn Jansen: Yes, but not as a choreographer. I am working on this film as an acting coach.
aris-dance.com: Really? Is this the first time?
JoAnn Jansen: No – I’ve worked on several films in this capacity – starting in about 1992.
aris-dance.com: Do you enjoy it as much as choreographing?
JoAnn Jansen: Well, it’s different but I enjoy this work in a different way than I do my choreography work. Working with the actors and seeing their performance evolve is a different feeling – but with the same satisfaction – as watching a dance moment come together for a film.
aris-dance.com: Any choreography involved in this movie?
JoAnn Jansen: No – not in this one.
aris-dance.com: Your professional career includes dancing, choreographing, directing and producing. The movie “Dirty Dancing Havana Nights” tells a story based on your own life…
JoAnn Jansen: Yes, it was my real life story. It was an interesting movie for me to make because it was personal – but I was also producing the film, choreographing and I even directed several of the scenes. The project was an amazing and interesting experience – especially watching moments of my life become recorded on film.
aris-dance.com: What do you enjoy most choreographing, directing…
JoAnn Jansen: I truly love it all. It’s all storytelling, and moving the story forward using different aspects of filmmaking.
aris-dance.com: What about music videos?
JoAnn Jansen: I’ve done a few, but have found most of my work in film , television and commercials.
aris-dance.com: What kind of guy is John Travolta?
JoAnn Jansen: He is a great guy. When I met him I was producing a film and we used to dance everyday on the set – just for fun… He asked me to choreograph a film for him and although I was headed in the direction of producing and directing, I enjoyed the choreography work – and here I sit thirty movies later.
aris-dance.com: What is the best tip you have ever received from working with actors like John Travolta?
JoAnn Jansen: I have learned to remain very present in their presence and to be very observant at picking up what they need. It’s the same as having a dance company and working with dancers for so many years. I learned that the best information I could get was to pay close attention to the person I am working with – it’s sort of like getting on their train and taking a seat. I remember once, when working with John Travolta, he said to always remember the story we were telling. He was talking about directing, but it made so much sense to me choreographically as well. When I created concert pieces in New York, I used storyboards to tell the story – I realized that this was how I should work with actors. To approach them with their character and their story – because, since they were not dancers, this was the best way to make them understand how to perform the movement. Talking in dance terms just doesn’t work with them. I let the steps evolve to the place where it serves the story and utilizes the best skills of the actor. This advice from John has carried with me throughout my work.
aris-dance.com: With the exception of John Travolta, what other artist has surprised you the most on the dance floor? Tell me one artist that you never expected to be …
JoAnn Jansen: Honestly, there’s never a “never expected” with me… (laughing) – I always pretty much know what and who I’m working with before I meet them.
aris-dance.com: (laughing) Is it because of their body language?
JoAnn Jansen: No, I just do research. I try to see the movies they’ve been in – watch everything I can to learn how they move and if they have a certain kind of rhythm or not. Jennifer Aniston was a wonderful surprise – I had no idea that she was that good.
aris-dance.com: Are you talking about the movie “Along Came Polly”?
JoAnn Jansen: Yes. I wasn’t sure how she was going to respond to the movement the script asked for but she was really good. And Ben Stiller was hilarious. He threw himself into rehearsals and worked so hard to do what I had choreographed, plus adding his own style to the movement – I couldn’t believe it. When he came into rehearsals, I showed him what I had in mind and the material I had prepared – and he loved it. He thought it was funny and just went for it. And then Jennifer came in and was so wonderfully rhythmical – she made it look great.
aris-dance.com: Well, you know she is Greek. It’s in her blood…
JoAnn Jansen: Well, that’s what she said to me. I am Greek! It was so cute.
aris-dance.com: What about the up-coming movie “Take The Lead” starring Antonio Banderas?
JoAnn Jansen: Well, I knew Antonio Banderas could dance, because I have seen him perform on Broadway so I was looking forward to working with him. When I work on dance partnering, I like to teach the guy how to lead, because it makes the storytelling better. I wanted him to be able to take her (his partner) places and move her through the space in an interesting and natural way. It’s interesting to watch, because you feel like there’s an intimacy happening between the two characters – and makes it more engaging. Antonio was great because he worked hard, and he’s a musician and a natural mover.. I selected his partners carefully and was very specific about who would look best with him. I met Katia on the movie “Shall We Dance” and, at the time, I was using her as a rehearsal dancer. The producers had someone else in mind, but I just knew that Katia would be a great fit. The whole point of that scene is Antonio trying to show those kids something – and I needed a very strong dancer to grab their attention.
aris-dance.com: Talking about The “Cinderella Story” for her, right?
JoAnn Jansen: (laughing) She is in heaven right now – a wonderful experience for her.. But she is a great kid – She is really young and she was worked hard and she really hit the mark. I mean, if you are going to dance with a star like Antonio, who knows how to command an audience and be stunning, she had to have something special.
aris-dance.com: Was Antonio skeptical that he had to do this with…
JoAnn Jansen: No, he is such a great “game” guy. He trusted me that she would be a great fit.
aris-dance.com: Are you more interested in being involved with directing or choreographing?
JoAnn Jansen: I like it all. Dance is my love and I am, and always will be, a dancer at heart. But I feel very comfortable directing and I have had the opportunity to produce four movies as well. I enjoy it all because each story is different. I like to approach a project and determine what it needs – and dive into my creative side and give it my all – whether it’s storytelling through dance, through directing, as the producer – or even the acting coach. Having danced in New York for 20 years, I learned a lot that I believe I bring to my films – regardless of which creative role I am playing.
aris-dance.com: You have worked with Georgia native Dakota Fanning as well…
JoAnn Jansen: I just worked with her in a film titled “Hounddog” right before coming here. I first met her when I worked with her on “Uptown Girls”. We just clicked so she called me herself when she got this role. Her mother and her agency said: “We like you to come and work with Dakota, because this is a sensitive part and we don’t trust anybody else”. Isn’t that the cutest thing?
aris-dance.com: Well, that’s why you are considered the best movie choreographer in America. Do you have an assistant helping you with your work?
JoAnn Jansen: Yes, I work almost exclusively with Allen Walls, who is really fabulous. I met him when I needed a double for John Travolta. We have a great relationship, I believe mainly because we pretty much have the same value system. But I’ve used other assistants as well – I remember when I did the movie “Elizabethtown” I needed someone who was a tap dancer to work with myself and Susan Sarandon so I used a wonderful girl named Michelle Elkin.
aris-dance.com: What about the directors and the producers?
JoAnn Jansen: I love working with the director Liz Friedlander, whom I just did “Take The Lead” with but I have enjoyed almost every director I’ve worked with. It has been an incredible experience. They have been really respectful, about believing in my skills and inviting collaboration. I’ve also enjoyed working with the producers on the films as well – may times they don’t get mentioned, but they are the support team and there are so many experiences that I’ve had that have just been truly incredible and mutually respectful.
aris-dance.com: What would be your advice to dancers?
JoAnn Jansen: I know it sounds so corny, but I just think you have to believe in yourself. I can’t tell you how many people told me I couldn’t do what I am doing. You just have to trust your natural instinct and put your feet on the floor and say I am here. That is one of the most powerful things you can do, as opposed to creating a personality that you think might get you attention. Stand there and let somebody see you and all that you have to offer… because it makes the choreographer want to work with you – again and again.