When Joanne Kahn’s parents took her to the New York City Ballet — she thinks it was “The Nutcracker” — she fell in love with the beauty and grace of dance.
“It was a chance to leave yourself behind, and reach another level of creativity we don’t usually tap into,” she recalls.
Joanne was all of 6 years old.
She started dance lessons soon after. At New York’s High School of Performing Arts, she received more serious training. She also studied at the School of American Ballet.
After Cornell University, Joanne helped write a show on the history of American musical theater for a cultural trip sponsored by the State Department. She moved to Boston, where her husband was in law school, and earned a master’s in education.
Back in New York Joanne taught at Friends Seminary; moved to Paris for her husband’s job; had 2 children, and took more dance classes.
Joanne Kahn works with Clay Singer (Tony) and Michelle Pauker (Maria), in rehearsals for next month's Staples Players production of "West Side Story." (Photo by Kerry Long)
In 1975 the Kahns moved to Westport. She got involved in the Westport Community Theatre; helped form Stageworks; choreographed for local schools — and in 1988 her son Jason’s friend John Morgan told her Staples Players needed a choreographer.
She introduced herself to director Al Pia, and offered to help. “In his wonderful way he just said, ‘Welcome aboard!'” she recalls.
Their 1st collaboration was “Anything Goes.” And — for the next 22 years — Joanne Kahn was Staples Players’ superb choreographer.
She continued after Al retired in 1996. She worked with Judy Luster for 4 years; since then, she and David Roth have taken Players to even more spectacular dance heights.
Through “Cabaret,” “Runaways,” “A Chorus Line” — where she worked with Broadway dancer and Staples alum Bradley Jones to teach the original “phenomenal” choreography — and through “The Fantasticks,” “Tommy, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and nearly too many others to count — Joanne has turned talented high school actors and singers into tremendous dancers.
It hasn’t been easy — but Joanne has loved every minute of it.
Her role, she says, is “working with the director. I try to translate the director’s thoughts and vision into movement and staging.”
In 2009 -- at Staples Players' 50th anniversary celebration -- Joanne Kahn danced in "One," the classic number from "A Chorus Line." (Photo by Kerry Long)
While most Staples Players are talented actors, and some have wonderful voices, few have dance backgrounds. “I have to understand what they can and can’t do,” she says — while challenging them to do more than they ever have, or thought they could.
“My job is to make them look their best — and shine.”
Now she’s working on a phenomenal dance production — “West Side Story.” It opens November 11.
When it closes the following weekend though, she won’t start thinking about the next show. After more than 2 decades as Staples Playears choreographer, Joanne Kahn is hanging up her dance shoes.
Her husband retired. They’ve been spending half the year in Sarasota. Now they’ve sold their house here, so Joanne’s long Westport connection has ended.
She has “loved and cherished” her job. “It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to have worked with Al, Judy and David,” Joanne says. “They’ve sustained me, and enriched my life.”
The actors have also inspired her. Staples Players is “a very dedicated group who understand theater can be ‘serious fun,'” she notes.
“That’s rare. At other high schools kids enjoy putting on shows. But they don’t regard it on a ‘professional level.’ Players is not just an after-school activity. The kids love what they do, and they’re phenomenally dedicated. That rubs off on all the rest of them on the ‘team.'”
Joanne Kahn confers with dance captain Alexa Babbin, and actors Max Stampa-Brown and Chris Nicoletti during rehearsals for the 2008 show, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." (Photo by Kerry Long)
Joanne loves working with high school students. “They’re adults,” she says. “You can talk to them. They understand your sense of humor — and the nuances you seek in choreography. They really get it.”
Leaving now, she admits, is “bittersweet. The level of excellence is phenomenal.”
But if a choreographer is going to take a final bow, “West Side Story” is the place to do it.
“It’s a magnificent dance show,” she says. “You don’t get much better than Jerome Robbins. And I love the story and the music.
“The cast is incredible,” Joanne adds. “The dance captains are magnificent. The kids have learned the original choreography.
“This show is so moving to me. The message is universal: How do we resolve our differences and get along? Getting that message across through dance and song is so important.”
And what is so important to Staples Players is that — for 22 years — Joanne Kahn has helped high school actors become confident, compelling dancers. For over 2 decades, she’s helped thousands of teenagers deliver countless important messages.
Take that final bow, Joanne. You deserve one more turn in the spotlight.
(“West Side Story” will be presented November 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m., and November 13 at 2 p.m. For more information, click here.)