By Emily Yewell Volin of Dance Informa.
Dirty Dancing is a classic dance movie with a popular reputation among generations of dancers and dance enthusiasts. The love story is now a touring show that has audiences and reviewers raving.
“Seen by millions across the globe, this worldwide smash-hit tells the classic story of Baby and Johnny, two fiercely independent young spirits from different worlds who come together in what will be the most challenging and triumphant summer of their lives,” exclaims the show’s plot summary.
Dance Informa recently spoke with Jenny Winton, who is cast as dance instructor Penny Johnson for the Dirty Dancing U.S. tour. Winton is a professional ballerina turning heads in the musical theatre scene. She trained at the prestigious San Francisco Ballet before performing with Pennsylvania Ballet II and Joffrey Ballet. Here, Winton gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the process of learning the show and what her life is like on tour.
Audiences worldwide are raving about this show. What do you think are some of the reasons people enjoy the story and this production of it so much?
“People can relate to it. A lot of people grew up watching the movie and it’s very nostalgic for them and brings them back to a certain time in their lives. The cast does a really good job of recreating that story. I think it brings them [the audience] onto stage with us. I think that’s why people are so excited and enthralled with it. We can hear it. We can hear in the audience’s applause that they are excited and very with us. I think that’s mainly what draws them in.”
The movie Dirty Dancing has been a staple in the library of many dancers since its release in 1987. What’s different in this stage production of the classic story?
“There’s much more of a sense of performance in the stage production. The live music makes you feel like you are involved with the production instead of just sitting on the couch and watching a story take place on your TV. It follows the movie, but there are sections that are different and show a little bit more of the back story – things that weren’t discovered in the movie. I think the characters are a little more developed in the stage production. You learn a little bit more about their lives.”
How and when did you learn the show and what was the process like?
“It started in July in New York for a month and we had just that amount of time to put the show together. I was just going in from a ballet company, so it was my first musical experience. I was thrown in with a lot of new things. The experience was really amazing. They were so nurturing, inspiring and supportive and made me feel like I could just go for it. The director, James Powell, was really great at letting us know the direction he wanted and making us feel comfortable about experimenting with our approaches to certain themes. Eleanor Bergstein, the show’s writer, was amazing because she brought us into her world and told us her processes in developing this story and how much it meant to her. She would bring in certain DVDs on civil rights stories of the time just to get us involved in the time. A lot of us are young and didn’t experience any of that. She was sweet and supportive to all of us. She told us things about Dirty Dancing that no one would ever know from watching the movie. It was a great experience and probably one of the best working experiences I’ve had in my professional life.”
You danced with Joffrey Ballet for several years and competed in the 2014 International Ballet Competition (IBC). What drew you to explore other performance opportunities?
“I think it was just the perfect time for me. I had been dancing professionally for about six years and I wasn’t necessarily looking to leave the ballet company. This opportunity presented itself and it really appealed to me. Training for the (IBC) competition was extremely exhausting, but amazing. It was a thing I’d wanted to do for a while. I think this was the perfect way to take a break after something so intense. This job has its own intensity. It’s different and I’m thankful for that. I’m the kind of person who needs things to challenge me in order to be happy with what I’m doing. This offers a different kind of challenge, especially the process of learning new steps – a new kind of dancing. I also only had the experience of acting through story ballets and I learned how to use my voice. It’s definitely kept me busy. Now that we are in the run, I think today is our 50th show, we are comfortable in what we are doing. It opens a lot of new doors that I didn’t know I could go through.”
The dancing in this show is strenuous. Could you share some health and fitness tips for performing in a touring show?
“I think it’s important to keep doing other things than the show because the show has you doing the same thing with your body every night. You can get really lopsided. Every city we go to I look and see what ballet companies are in the city so I can go take ballet class. It is a little challenging because ballet classes are usually in the morning and that’s not our schedule. We need to be ready at night. So, sometimes I find a school class in the afternoon, or a yoga class, or a gym where they have good classes. I have to make sure I am always doing something with my body that’s different from the show so I can even everything out. Obviously, I try to keep eating well and find farmer’s markets or little grocery stores so I don’t eat out too much. I try to be as normal as possible while having this lifestyle that is just not normal at all.”
Photo (top): Samuel Pergande (Johnny) and Jenny Winton (Penny) in the North American tour of Dirty Dancing. Photo by Matthew Murphy.