This summer, NYC-based choreographer JEFFRY DENMAN is partnering with BDL to workshop material for a new, dance-driven musical based on the harrowing true story of immigrants traveling from Independence, Missouri to California in the winter of 1846. Denman’s choreographic credits include Broadway workshops of YANK! and Spongebob The Musical; and Off-Broadway productions of YANK! (SDC Callaway, Lortel Noms), Naked Boys Singing, and Assistance and Bullet for Adolf. He is the founder and artistic director of The Denman Theatre & Dance Company.
We sat down with Jeffry after a rehearsal and got to know a bit more about his background, his goals for the workshop and what made him want to work with Broadway Dance Lab.
BDL: It’s such a pleasure to be working with you, Jeffry! Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where are you from originally and how did you get started as a dancer?
JD: I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. I didn’t really start dancing until high school when the Swing Choir choreographer at my school, Lynne Formato (currently a professor of Musical Theatre at Elon University) created a solo for me. Ever since then, I’ve been dancing. So, “thank you, Lynne!”
BDL: How did your transition into choreographic work evolve?
JD: I went to the University of Buffalo and as a musical theatre dancer, I had to take three full years of the other dance disciplines, plus partnering classes, choreography classes, etc. I loved choreographing, and started to choreograph my classmates’ midterms and finals. Then I started creating my own projects – ballets and musicals – that were produced in Buffalo.
BDL: What are three words that you would use to describe your choreographic style?
JD: I actually think other people would answer this better, so I’ll use words that directors and colleagues have used: “classic”, “athletic”, and “moving.” They are certainly qualities I strive to achieve.
BDL: Tell me more about the project you’ll be working on during your time with BDL. You’ve described it as being inspired by the movement rather than the text, can you explain that further?
JD: The Donner Party Project has to do with the true story of a group of immigrants who traveled from Independence, Missouri to California in 1846. They ended up getting trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains, outside of Lake Tahoe, during one of the worst winters to ever hit the area. 87 people went into the mountains and only 42 came out. Most people had to resort to cannibalizing the dead in order to survive.
When the piece first began materializing, I was working with choreographer Liz Lerman. I told Liz about my ideas and that I wanted to depict potentially disturbing events through dance. She had done the same with a piece I worked on with her at La Jolla Playhouse, called Healing Wars. Within that piece, Liz had managed to depict PTSD, amputation, war and death in artful, haunting and beautiful ways. I loved the way the movement made the topic it was portraying incredibly poetic, without losing any emotional impact. I began to think I might be able to do a similar thing with the events surrounding the Donner Party story.
Liz encouraged me to “get right into the studio” and start to move. “Don’t worry about the text,” she said. “Just move.” And she was right! So now, as we continue to develop this project, my playwright, Joy Tomasko, and I are very conscious of making sure the movement is driving the work’s creation as opposed to the text. It’s also become the motto of the Denman Theatre & Dance Company. “First, we move.” Thank you, Liz!
BDL: That’s so wonderful! What made you want to contact BDL for this project?
JD: I’ve known and admired Josh for a long time, and had been keeping my eye on what he was doing with BDL. It seemed to me that this project would fit well within the company’s mission. It’s not a musical in the strictest definition of the term, but then neither was Susan Stroman’s Contact. So I reached out to Josh and he was very excited about the prospect for that very reason. He didn’t want to categorize the work, and was interested in the fact that it was being born out of movement. I’m so excited to be working with BDL on this!
BDL: What specific goals do you have for this residency period?
JD: We’re really hoping to take the movement we’ve already created and further develop it. We’ll also be introducing the new component of text into the work. I’m very excited to see how it all fits together. We’re also currently looking for a theatre or producing entity that might want to partner with us on the piece.
BDL: What’s next for your after you finish this residency?
JD: I currently have three additional projects that I’m interesting in developing. And I’m hoping the Denman Theatre & Dance Company can work with BDL again very soon!