Where are you going?” my mother asked. “Ballet.” “Ballet?!” she exclaimed, like I had said I was going to the moon or heading out to rob a bank.
Yup, I was about to join a ballet class with the ballerinas of “The Phantom of the Opera” and the idea is absurd because my ballet skills are nonexistent.
My only brush with ballet was in grade school P.E. class where we had to learn the five basic positions. That’s it. Ballet has not figured in my life since then, unless you count my obsession with tights and buns. Graceful isn’t a word anyone would use to describe me.
But I was about to dive into it, for the sake of a story. “Can you please warn them that I’m a klutz?” I messaged Anna Yulo, PR and marketing executive for Concertus Manila, which, along with Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, has once again brought the show to the country.
A few days later, I found myself backstage at The Theatre at Solaire, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I stood there in my old shirt, pajama bottoms and sneakers, surrounded by ballet dancers in leotards, leg warmers, pretty scarves and pointe shoes.
A hippo among gazelles
Leading the class was Denny Berry, Phantom’s associate choreographer. She worked directly with the legendary Gillian Lynne who created the show’s musical staging and choreography. Denny has worked on over 15 productions of The Phantom of the Opera worldwide and was the original Broadway Dance Captain of the show.
And there I was, a buffoon crashing her class.
Denny called out jetés and passés and pliés which the ballet dancers did with graceful ease while I stared, my mouth agape. They moved swiftly, effortlessly. There was no way I was going to be able to do that. It hit me that I had made a very big mistake.
“Let’s slow it down,” said Denny, smiling at me and changing the music.
I had backed into a corner but Jee Jee Noh, the show’s resident choreographer and ballet swing and who started in Phantom in London in 1992, took me by the hand and led me back to the center of the studio. Like Denny, she smiled at me warmly. “Just follow the movements,” she said.
I tried. I really really did. My shoe squeaked against the floor as I attempted to do a clumsy pirouette.
“Good, good,” Denny said encouragingly.
The dancers moved so fluidly that I couldn’t distinguish their left foot from their right. I kept stumbling and losing my balance in my effort to mimic their steps. Both my brain and my body couldn’t keep up. I wasn’t fooling anyone. It was like being a hippo in a room of gazelles. Their dancing was so beautiful that I forgot about moving. I just stood there, watching them, completely transfixed.
The members of Phantom’s ballet chorus have class every single day. “They must, to keep up that technique. You have to dance every day like that. That prepares you for what you’re going to do on the stage,” said Denny.
It was lovely to watch, not just the dancing but the camaraderie among them. They cheered for one another as they completed the more difficult routines.
“Obviously, I’ve never danced before,” I told Denny as we sat down to talk after class.
“It was pretty fun, though. And that was really brave of you,” she said. “Just know that it takes 10 years to be able to dance like that. Ten years, just to be able to stand on your feet and move around your center. These people have been doing it for way more than that.”
She added, “This has been one of the best ensembles I’ve had the pleasure of teaching.”
It takes special training to be a dancer in “The Phantom of the Opera.” “The thing that makes it so special is that it takes place in the world of classical theater. And so we, the people that dance, have to be real, classical ballerinas. The same is true with the singers. The singers are classically trained. They are definitely the best of those two worlds. Normally a Broadway show doesn’t require that kind of expertise of technique. This is really classical technique and that makes it stand out.”
The musical, based on the Gaston Leroux novel “Le Fantôme de L’Opéra,” tells the story of the Phantom, a disfigured musical genius who haunts the Paris Opera House and falls obsessively in love with Christine, a young soprano. It has been a big part of Denny’s life. “Any theater attempt is precarious. It’s magic. As much as you try to have the best this and the best that and the best ideas, it misses more than it really makes it. But this was just an incredible circumstance of the perfect people coming together at the perfect time with the perfect ideas and the perfect situation. It doesn’t happen very often,” she said. “When we started this, nobody knew that it was going to do what it did. I left a job in Berlin and came to this and thought it was going to be a year, maybe. It’s turned out to be so much more of my life. My life has been a bit defined by this great luck… The Phantoms and the Hamiltons don’t happen (often), there’s one a generation. That’s why I feel fortunate, so happy. We’re dealing with something that is so exquisite, it’s so precious.”
It’s part of Denny’s job to teach “The Phantom of the Opera” to performers who have never done it before and she finds that a lot of fun. “I care a lot about it. I’ve been with it from the beginning. I care that they know what Gillian Lynne said. It’s so nice to be able to pass that on and to be able to pass on little understandings from Harold Prince (the director). It’s a legacy, it just kind of passes through and I feel so fortunate to be the conduit.”
Over the years, Gillian made little changes in the show’s choreography. “It was really really fun to have these little jewels that she would lay in… The last bit of work that she did before she passed away was about two, three years ago. It was the very final sequence coming off of the steps in “Masquerade.” They’re just about eight steps and those are precious to me. It’s lovely.”
Denny has helped bring the show to different parts of the world. “It’s an amazing experience. I’ve done many, many, many of these, and I’ve done them in many different languages. It’s always so much fun to come back to English. I just did one in Portuguese, I’ve done it in Spanish and German and Scandinavian languages. It’s a testament to the work that every culture has been moved by the piece. It resonates.”
“The Phantom of the Opera,” which first opened in London’s West End in 1986, has been on Broadway for 30 years now and has won over 70 major theater awards. Denny believes one of the secrets behind the show’s timeless appeal is its universality. “It reaches everybody because who hasn’t been rejected, who doesn’t understand loss? No matter who you are, that pulls at your heart, everybody understands that. There is also a great care that has gone into the the upkeep of these productions—the quality of the costumes, the details of the set. It’s really important that this show is not skimped on. It’s a wonderful accolade to the producers who care so much that they are really going to bring you the finest and the best.”
When asked what she’d like to tell Filipino audiences about the show, Denny said, “Let this theatrical experience wash over you and wash through you… let yourself be moved and be taken on that journey.”
That’s exactly what I did. At the gala night, I paid closer attention to the ballet dancers, my appreciation for the beauty they add to the show renewed.
I’ve been in love with “The Phantom of the Opera” since I first watched it seven years ago. My little brush with ballet gave me yet another reason to love it even more.
“The Phantom of the Opera” is currently running at The Theatre at Solaire. Call 8919999; visit Ticketworld.com.ph.