By VALERIE GLADSTONE | New York Times
Barry Wetcher/Lions Gate Films
Romola Garai and Diego Luna in “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” a remake of the hit 1987 movie.
KEEP up your energy,” the choreographer Joann Jansen called to the dancers swaying to the mambo in an opulent ballroom here last April. She was fine-tuning a scene in “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” a remake of the 1987 hit movie “Dirty Dancing,” which opens on Friday.
When the sequence ended, she took the dancers aside. “Listen,” she said, “you have to look like you’re loving it even if you’ve been doing this scene for hours.” Standing in front of them, elegant in black slacks and shirt, she rolled her hips and twisted her torso about as provocatively as Mary Poppins might have. They looked at her sheepishly. The next time she did the movements, she turned on all her sensuality. “Hey, come on,” she said. “This is about bodies communicating their desire for one another. It has to be hot.”
Ms. Jansen, whose choreographic credits include “Along Came Polly” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” and who was the associate producer of “Fresh” and “White Man’s Burden,” has a lot invested in this film. She is not only its choreographer and co-producer; she also inspired the story. “It’s about my first love,” she said. “We got to know each other through dancing together. And that’s what this love story is also about.”
The plot closely follows Ms. Jansen’s teenage experience, which she chronicles in a book that she has nearly completed. In 1959, shortly before the Cuban Revolution she and her parents moved from St. Louis to Havana, where her father managed a plant for Reynolds Aluminum. Though initially unhappy about leaving her old high school, she soon fell for a Cuban boy who worked at the hotel where her family stayed. Like the lovers in the original “Dirty Dancing,” they hid their affection from her parents because of their class differences. But the Havana of that time was far more volatile than the Catskill resort in 1963 where the previous film was set, and Ms. Jansen’s romance was interrupted by a revolution, not just the end of a summer vacation.
The new film features Romola Garai, who starred in “I Captured the Castle,” and Diego Luna, who won acclaim for his performance in “Y Tu Mam� Tambien.” “Joann’s personal connection adds a tremendous amount of emotional resonance to the film,” said Sarah Green, its producer. “You feel she fully empathizes with the young couple. She understands that people reveal themselves in how they dance. As a result, if you watch nothing but the dancing, you’ll understand the story.”
Ms. Jansen paid close attention to Ms. Garai and Mr. Luna as they moved confidently on the dance floor during that day’s shoot. They looked glamorous in their evening clothes and very much in love. As the Latin band pumped out a spirited salsa, Mr. Luna swung Ms. Garai, her dress swirling around her hips, before pulling her close to his chest and dipping her backward. Moving in a tight embrace, they appeared to have been dancing together forever.
“I’m really proud of them,” Ms. Jansen said. “They hardly knew anything about dancing before this film.”
At Ms. Jansen’s request, relatively unknown actors were chosen for the major parts, as in the earlier film. But Patrick Swayze, whose career took off after he appeared in “Dirty Dancing,” does play a cameo role as a dance instructor, and he and Ms. Jansen briefly dance together, doing a side lift that was copied from the last film. “It’s a sweet little homage,” she said.
Ms. Garai and Mr. Luna had a good sense of rhythm, Ms. Jansen recalls, but even so she had to work with them daily for two months before beginning to choreograph. She started with physical training, and moved on to elaborate footwork and Afro Cuban movement. She also showed Mr. Luna how to lead a partner. Ms. Jansen also taught them dance phrases that combined Latin and ballroom styles.
“Sometimes it was very, very frustrating,” Ms. Garai said. “But we didn’t want doubles to dance in our places. It was a matter of pride.”
Ms. Jansen was particularly aware of the difference in their body types. “You accentuate a person’s characteristics,” she said. “Romola is tall and statuesque, and Diego has a funky way of holding himself. I wouldn’t try to make her look small or give her small steps. For Diego, who is cute and sexy with a flirty way about him, I incorporated his natural mannerisms into his arm gestures and how he turns his head and looks at her. By the time we started filming, they could even figure out what fit and what didn’t in a dance sequence.”
In the final dance, Ms. Jansen said, “I wanted to show Romola bringing her knowledge of ballroom and mambo to their relationship and Diego his experience in Afro-Cuban and salsa. As they share what they know, they fall in love.”
Though she had studied at the School of American Ballet and had run her own modern dance company in New York for several years, she said that creating choreography for film required her to think like a director. For starters, she broke down the story by shots. “I had to figure out for the cameras what movements best express the meaning of the story and illuminate the characters,” she said.
During the shooting that day, Ms. Jansen went up to the balcony above the ballroom floor and spoke to a cameraman. “I want viewers to feel like they are watching the dancers from tables around the ballroom floor,” she told him. “So these have to be long shots.”
In the nightclub scenes, where the dancing is sexier, she had the camera zoom in on the dancers’ bodies and faces. “The main camera gets the stars from all perspectives,” she explained, and the other camera mainly goes for close-ups of body parts � hips, feet, torsos � of the other dancers.”
When the day’s shoot came to an end, Mr. Luna, sweaty and tired, came over to review some moves with Ms. Jansen. “The only time I danced before this movie was when I was drunk or wanted to get close to a girl,” he said. “The hardest part was believing I could do it, that I could really move my hips, my shoulders and my feet all at the same time. Joann gave me the confidence to try. Now it’s good-bye to two-left-feet Diego.”