Staging a new reimagined production of The Phantom of the Opera for the first time in Australia hasn’t been an easy journey. After a lengthy year-long delay due to the Covid pandemic, quarantine mandates, lockdown restrictions and a lot of uncertainty, Associate Choreographer Nina Goldman and the cast are finally in the rehearsal room in Sydney, and the excitement is palpable.
“There’s been a year build up to this; it’s been really long” says Goldman. “We have this frustration with Covid because we are still in a precarious place. Everyone still has to wear masks. It’s frustrating for the singers as they want to take their masks off to sing, the dancers are dancing and getting overheated so they want to take their masks off, and we can’t right now. Its capping a little bit of the enthusiasm, but for the most part, everyone is just like, let’s go, let’s do this thing already.”
Born and raised in New York City, Goldman’s mother was a modern dancer and ballet teacher. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Goldman forged an impressive career starting as a professional classical ballet dancer, spending six years with The National Ballet of Canada. When she decided to explore more commercial work, she landed her first Broadway show in the original production of The Phantom of the Opera in the ’90s, so being involved in this production is a full circle moment for her. It was later in her career working on and off for 10 years in Matthew Bourne’s company New Adventures in London, that she connected with company member Scott Ambler, the late choreographer of this production whose legacy she is upholding.
“Scott and I became a team in the US, and when the show was finally up and set and mounted, Scott went back to London, and then I was in charge of maintaining the show for the six years it was on tour,” Goldman explains. “Sadly, Scott passed away a few years ago, and it’s a huge hole that he has left, and I am mounting the show trying to maintain his voice intention as we do this in Australia. I feel a huge responsibility, but I also feel it is a huge gift and opportunity for me to continue to infuse Scott’s voice. I have some very short videos of him doing the movement, and I share that with company members when I can. I try to bring in just his voice, and so I feel very lucky to be able to do that.”
With spectacular new staging and choreography, this production has surprises not seen in the original including a new duet with the Phantom and leading lady, Christine. “There’s also a lot more dancing for Christine in this version,” Goldman reveals. “There’s a song in the second act called ‘Past the Point’ and a duet with the Phantom and Christine which is not in the original. This version is also a little bit darker. There’s a lot more fire, there’s a lot of pyro in it, so it’s quite different. People will clearly recognise the music, the songs and the relationships, but there’s definitely a different quality and presentation. A little less theatrical and a little more grounded in real people.”
Reflecting on the challenges of holding the Sydney and Melbourne auditions for this production during a pandemic from her New York City apartment was “a most unusual situation”. Using technology and working closely with local dancer Olivia Jenkins and Director Seth Sklar-Heyn, it allowed the production to continue to move forward under tough conditions. “We scheduled the auditions at 9 o’clock in the morning so it was 11 o’clock in the night my time in New York, and I moved all my furniture, I set up a monitor in my apartment, a very small typical New York City apartment,” Goldman says. “I had videoed myself doing certain movements which I sent to Olivia so she could learn the movement ahead of the audition. I was at home teaching it, and she was in the room with the dancers demonstrating. Then, we would go in groups like a normal audition, and I would come closer to the monitor, I would watch, we would go through different groups, then I would mute Zoom and would WhatsApp and call Seth in the room, and when speaking with Seth I’d say, ‘Okay, this dancer looks great. How tall is this person? What’s their energy like in the room?’ I can get a sense of their technical ability, but there’s much more than that needed to hire someone. It’s not what I would ever want to do again, but we did it. We cast the show.”
The dancers who are cast in this production were chosen for their ability to tell a story through movement, which Goldman says is as important as having strong technique. “Often times, as ballet dancers, there’s so much more of an emphasis on technique — perfect turnout, pointing your foot the right way, the lines, the high legs, many turns. It’s really important that the dancers are receptive of making something of the movement, because with Scott as the choreographer, every movement has an intention, every movement is either a character choice, you’re telling a story, you’re relating to someone, you’re reacting to someone. Everyone is telling a story, not just the principals.”
The next obstacle she faced after casting the production was a two-week mandatory hotel quarantine when she arrived in Australia last year. During her time in quarantine, she taught ballet barre classes via Zoom to connect with the dancers who were hired. “You want to create an environment and a community,” she says of holding the online Zoom classes. “We’ve been separated by so much of this pandemic and the isolation, so it’s just really important to foster community, so I thought that would be a good thing to do.”
Three-quarters of the way through her mandatory quarantine and with Covid cases on the rise in Sydney, the production was suddenly cancelled, and she was straight back on a plane to New York. Fast forward to one year later, and this production is finally now in rehearsals and on track to open this August, at the Sydney Opera House.
At today’s morning rehearsal, Goldman worked with the company on the opening number of the second act, “Masquerade”, and she’s excited to be working with a company where there isn’t a separation between the dancers and the singers. “You are going to see the dancers and the singers all moving and singing and dancing together. There are singers partnered with dancers and there are singers with singers and dancers with dancers, everyone is moving together and changing partners, so it’s really quite wonderful. There are quite a few moments when they are really unified. It’s not like the dancers are on the side doing one thing and the singers on the other side. They are really all together.”
Even with the added pressure of mounting the show in a relatively short period of time, seeing everyone work together has been very rewarding for Goldman. “It’s an emotional highlight for me, when I’m in the room and everyone is working together, the music department, the directing department my two assistants Olivia and Aaron, the dancers, the stage management. It’s like we’re all coming from different places, all coming to put this together. It takes a village. I have that moment where I feel Scott’s presence, I feel such gratitude for the people who are all coming together to make this happen. It’s just a really golden moment.”
This new production of The Phantom of the Opera is one that you’ll want to see because it’s “so much fun!” says Goldman. “If you’ve seen The Phantom of the Opera before, you haven’t seen this version, so you’re going to want to see: How did they remake it? How did they reimagine it whilst also staying true to the essence of the original? Everyone has to see The Phantom of the Opera once in their life. No one will be disappointed!”
The Phantom of the Opera is on at Sydney Opera House from 19 August, and at Arts Centre Melbourne from 30 October. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit au.thephantomoftheopera.com.
By Nicole Saleh of Dance Informa.
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