NEW YORK — Veteran Hollywood choreographer JoAnn Jansen has taught Richard Gere how to waltz (for the upcoming remake of “Shall We Dance”) and Jennifer Aniston how to salsa (for “Along Came Polly”), but for “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” she not only supplied the dance steps but also the story — her own seasoned version of the coming-of-age classic.
Jansen, whose other credits include “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Uptown Girls,” and “The Mexican,” moved to Havana with her family as a teenager in 1958. First, she fell in love with the music, then with a local boy. “It was pre-revolutionary Castro, it was heavy gambling, American capitalism, a free-for-all,” says Jansen, who coyly states she’s in her early 50s. “I kind of had to be with the country club set for a while but the minute I laid eyes on the Cuban people, that was it.”
An instinctive performer whose parents were ballroom dancers, Jansen began taking classes with the New York City Ballet at age six. “I was a natural,” she says. “But once I got down to Havana and saw the Afro-Cuban style and the free forms I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’”
Though she stayed in Havana for just five months, the experience left a lasting impression. “No matter how you cut it, it really was a basic Romeo and Juliet story,” Jansen says of her youth.
When she began developing the tale 40 years later with her friend, producer Lawrence Bender (“Kill Bill” “Good Will Hunting”), the two had the opportunity to make the film under the “Dirty Dancing” franchise.
“I said to him, ‘Should we do this? Because it might not get made if we don’t,’” Jansen recalls. “That’s the truth of it. It’s not as appealing, but it’s business.”
Besides a few nods to the original (including a cameo Jansen makes with the film’s original heartthrob, Patrick Swayze), the action focuses on two new leads played by Romola Garai and Diego Luna. “The filmmakers wanted good actors first,” says Jansen, who spent eight hours a day for two months training the pair in salsa, mambo and ballroom dancing. “But Romola and Diego had a really good sense of rhythm.”
Jansen, who danced professionally in New York for years before breaking into films, coproduced this film and will make her directing debut with two upcoming features. The first is a horror flick and the second is another coming-of-age tale, which she compares to “Lost in Translation.”
No matter the role, however, Jansen prides herself on developing collaborative relationships with actors. “With Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ I would say to Johnny, ‘You would move differently if you bent your knees.’ But you have to tell Benicio to cover his ears because he’s a method actor,” she explains. “Richard Gere’s the same way. You cannot give him the movement without telling him why he’s doing it. But with Jennifer Lopez, it’s ‘Give me the steps, give me the count.’”
Jansen has a theory that the more successful the actor, the more she has to work to gain his trust. “You have to listen, because if you don’t, they won’t do anything,” she says. “I really try to be open with them so we can actually create something together.”
An especially fruitful collaboration came when Jansen moved to Los Angeles six years ago to work on “White Man’s Burden” with John Travolta. The two became friends, and Jansen went on to choreograph his next film, “Michael.” “We used to dance every day. I would do all the different forms of ballet and he would have to guess if it was German, French or Italian,” she gushes, adding, “Once you choreograph a film for John Travolta, well, there’ll be plenty for you later.”