Dirty Dancing

Have the Time of Your Life

Event: Dirty Dancing

Location: Times-Union Center Moran Theater

Dates: Dec 9-14
Contact: www.artistseriesjax.org

Jenny Winton is having the time of her life, reprising a role that has cemented itself into the pop culture lexicon. Winton plays the role of Penny in the musical adaptation of Dirty Dancing, presented by the FSCJ Artist Series Dec 9-14 at the Times-Union Center for the Arts.

As a classically trained ballet dancer, Winton says she was eager to let her hair down and have fun in her role as the rough-around-the-edges Penny. “It’s really fun. It’s a party on stage,” she says. “It’s really pretty amazing, because there are so many people who this story is so dear to and means so much in terms of their own coming of age and just growing up in general,” she says. “It’s really pretty special to remind people of that and retell this story.”

Dirty Dancing is an unparalleled live experience as it rediscovers the classic summer love story between Baby and Johnny told through sensational dancing and a triumphant soundtrack, featuring the hit songs, ‘Hungry Eyes,’ ‘Hey Baby,’ ‘Do you Love Me?’ and the heart-stopping ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.’ London’s Sunday Express says, “This crowd-pleasing stage adaptation hits the jackpot!”

While Winton is proud to be a part of such an iconic franchise, she was not influenced by the original 1987 film, relying instead on her own interpretation and experience when bringing the part of Penny to life. In doing so, she shed any notion of recreating an exact replica of the character and gave herself the freedom to stretch the boundaries established in the original film.

“I’ve only really seen it through my own perception of who Penny is,” Winton says. “I grew up after the movie came out, so I wasn’t around for the initial hype of it all. So all I can really do is take in what I get from the character. Hopefully, it comes across as genuine and true to the original Penny. I have my own take on her. I know it’s working because the audience is so responsive.”

Penny has a very dramatic storyline in the film, and Winton works hard to translate that raw emotion on stage. Rather than feeling uncomfortable and exposed, Winton says she is able to channel the character’s vulnerability into her performance.

“The stage has always been a very special place for me. It’s funny because, in a way, you’re exposed, because you are out there in the middle of this dark box with a bunch of lights on you and thousands of people watching you, but, in a way, it’s more protective for me. It’s almost as if it’s a safer place because it’s not real life,” she says. “I kind of have the luxury of just telling any story I want. I can pull from personal life experiences or maybe from a film I have recently seen that reminded me of her, or [from] anything. It’s just such a fantastic place, because you can pull from any source that inspires you and just play it.”
Winton trained at the San Francisco Ballet School under Lola de Avila, Pascale Leroy, Gloria Govrin, and Shannon Breshnahan. She danced with Pennsylvania Ballet II in 2008, and joined the Joffrey Ballet in 2009. Upon finishing her fifth season with Joffrey, she was invited to the 2014 USA IBC where she competed as a Senior Female Soloist.

“I trained my whole life to be a professional ballet dancer and really using your body is the only way to express yourself in ballet, because there aren’t any words. It really taught me a way of almost miming certain emotions, or what your body does in reaction to certain things. I am very in tune with my own body and how I use it, and that is a big part of who Penny is. She is trained as a dancer and used to be a Rockette in the story and had her own career and everything. The way that she reacts to things is similar to the way that I would in the sense of our backgrounds.”

Ballet is fluid and beautiful in its motions, but its also very structured in its techniques, so Winton was excited to put all of her training aside and just let loose for once. “It was tricky at first to let go of something that I have been trained in doing every day for almost 20 years. It was difficult, but it was very liberating at the same time,” she says. “Ballet has so much to offer, but it does have a limit. Going beyond that limit was really exciting for me, to see what else my body can do. It’s a whole different mentality going out on stage, because you’re not prepping for this extremely technical variation where you’re trying to be an ethereal creature. You are just going on stage as a normal person and having fun. It’s very low stress compared to other things I have experienced.”

Winton takes particular enjoyment in the scene that reveals the after-hours lives of the dancers who work at Kellermans. During the day, they are stiff and limited by their position to serve the affluent guests of the fictitious retreat. “It’s kind of the first look at the staff quarters, and all of the staff just having fun and letting loose in their own protective downstairs quarters. They never really get to be themselves and have fun, and the music is just great. They are such iconic songs, and the band is just at its peak during this scene in the story,” she says. “It’s really just such a celebration of life. They have been through so much together. They are all such hard workers, and they don’t get paid every much or treated very well, but they still love life, and they still love dancing. This is a celebration of that and their resilience. It’s a really fun part of the story.”

Winton takes immense pleasure in seeing the joy carried out by audiences night after night, and she is very grateful to be a conduit of that joy. “I see a lot of people driving home in their cars listening to the soundtrack. It’s just kind of a reminder to live in the moment and just have fun and not worry about all of these life issues that stress us out. Yes, there are these terrible things happening in the world today, and there was at that time, too, from the Civil Rights movement and all of Penny’s personal struggles, but there is still time to enjoy life. That’s what dancing [to] music brings to people.”

About Liza Mitchell