Published October 07, 2019 by Tom Porter

The Drama of Dance: Gwyneth Jones Lends Expertise to New York Play

Gwyneth Jones got an unusual request earlier this year. It was an email sent on behalf of the award-winning playwright Richard Nelson, inviting Jones, who is senior lecturer in dance performance, to help out with his latest play, which enjoys its world premiere later this month.

gwyneth jones with dan wagoner
Gwyneth Jones dancing with Dan Wagoner "sometime in the 1980s." Photo: Lois Greenfield.

“The play is called The Michaels,” said Jones, “and the central character is a choreographer called Rose Michaels, so it features a lot of dancing.” Jones’s official title is “choreography consultant” rather than choreographer, though—the reason being that the dance moves in the play were originally created back in the 1980s; this is where the line between fact and fiction becomes a little blurry, she explained.

“The dancing is portrayed as the work of Rose Michaels, a fictional character who was meant to have been a modern dancer back in the 1980s. In reality, however, it’s the work of a renowned choreographer named Dan Wagoner, whom I actually danced with back then.” Nelson is a big admirer of Wagoner’s work, said Jones, and when he wrote this play, he decided it would be a good way of featuring the great man’s dance work. “Wagoner is on board with the project, naturally, but he is well into his 80s now and retired,” she added, “so I was brought in as consultant, as someone who knows his work.”

In May, Jones traveled to New York for a work session with the two young dancers in the production. “They’re both Julliard-trained dancers but they’re also actors,” she explained. “One of them plays the daughter of Rose–Lucy Michaels—and the other plays her niece. They perform one duet together and two solos.” One of the biggest challenges facing Jones is how to adapt the original choreography to a new, much smaller, setting. “The dances were created for a big open stage, but the play is set entirely in a kitchen, where the dancers perform around a table. We had to adapt the material to work in that setting while sticking as much as possible to the original choreography.”

Jones is preparing to head back to New York for a final round of rehearsals before the play opens at The Public Theater in Manhattan on October 27 for a four-week run. Playwright Richard Nelson is directing the play, which is unusual, said Jones. It also adds a little more unpredictability to the process. “Richard changes things all the time. He is always rewriting, so who knows what to expect at the next rehearsal! It’s a very exciting challenge and a great learning experience for me.”