Steppin' in (at the last minute)

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The Masquerade scene from 'The Phantom of the Opera'. Photo: Daniel Boud.
The Masquerade scene from 'The Phantom of the Opera'. Photo: Daniel Boud.

The role of the swings has become even more important of late, writes Karen van Ulzen.

“No way!” That was Helen Howard’s first thought when she was asked to step in at the last minute in An American in Paris. Howard would have had fewer than four days to learn the role of Madam Baurel, replacing a sick Ann Wood, and she was already busy working on the Disney TV series of Nautilus. Furthermore, the role required some dancing: “I just don't dance, I take weeks to learn if I have to dance in a play!”, she claims.

But the show was “desperate” for someone. Covid had attacked the ranks of the Brisbane production and no-one else suitable was available. Having scanned the script and decided it was “do-able”, she cautiously accepted the part. There followed hours of intense drilling by the American in Paris team, among them “Hannah Ryan, the staging director, who was so calm, so grateful, so intelligent; she put me at ease,” Howard says.

Helen Howard.
Helen Howard.

As for the dancing, “the wonderful choreographer, Sean Kelly” soon gave her the confidence to feel she could meet the demands. “He was the most patient teacher. He got someone to film from the back and front as I learnt. I sensed that he was fairly confident in me. I was relaxed because I knew I didn't have to do it, they had worked out a way I could sidle to the back during the scene. But the more I did it the more I realised the dance is part of Madam Baurel's story. She 'loosens' through the dance, and shocks herself a little, that she can, after the war, loosen, something gives way and she can find herself again in the dance. I thought, this is important, I have to do it.” With the team behind her (and some speedy costume adjustments), Howard made it onto stage, performing in all-important previews as well as the opening night. “Something just clicked, the role was right for me.”

Jumping in at the last minute is usually the role of the “swing” in music theatre. With Covid-19 still at large and forcing so many people into isolation, the swing has become an even more crucial member of the cast.

Howard is a highly experienced stage and screen actor but An American in Paris was only her second musical. Her first was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in Melbourne, in which she played Dolores Umbridge and Aunt Petunia. Both experiences left her in awe of swings. “I could not believe how many roles they have to hold in their heads,” she says. “They are very disciplined and calm and yet often they were the brightest souls in the cast, always ready to make people laugh, which was very admirable, especially in these Covid positive times.”

How do they do it? It's a matter of meticulous organisation, explains Olivia Jenkins, the dance captain and swing on Opera Australia's Phantom of the Opera. “Everything is written down,” she explains, nothing is left to the last minute, every contingency is prepared for.

 Like An American in Paris, dance is a large and integral part of the show. For this current OA production, the late Scott Ambler’s original choreography has been recreated by his long-time associate, Nina Goldman. Ambler devised all new movement and choreographic ideas for this re-imagined version when this production was first conceived with director Laurence Connor and supervised by Cameron Mackintosh and Matthew Bourne (founding director of New Adventures company in the UK, where Scott was also a Founder Artistic Associate). Jenkins is one of six swings (including voice swings).

At the time of this interview, during early rehearsals, all the swings were already fully deployed for ill cast members. (Just the night before, Moulin Rouge in Sydney had had to be cancelled because of sickness.)

Olivia Jenkins
Olivia Jenkins

As dance captain, Jenkins works closely with associate choreographer Nina Goldman, “who has everything written down in terms of every role and every scene – who their partner is, their entries and exits, props, etc. The actual movement I just learn on my own, I don't need to write that down. “Also, every time we have to take someone off, it's written down who steps into a role, or if we have to cut a track. We have all of that systemised and organised so there's absolutely no confusion.”

Combining the role of dance captain with swing is common, as each has a similar job in needing to know the show inside out. But while a dance captain is often a swing, a first-time swing is seldom a dance captain, as the latter has greater responsibilities, and requires experience and authority. It is the dance captain who, once the creative team has staged the show and returned to their place of origin (often overseas), is responsible for keeping the dance in perfect order and for rehearsing swings into their parts.

“I basically have to know every role/track, including the singers'. There may even be some times, if we don't have enough singers, that I could go on in a small part and be the body of a singer, though not necessarily singing.” Jenkins has to attend the show every night, though she will probably spend more time out in the audience taking notes than backstage with the swings.

For Jenkins, becoming a dance captain is a transition from a career as a classical dancer to the more directorial side of dance. She had a respectable performing career, mostly in Europe and the UK, and is now the director of a large dance school, Danceworks, in Sydney. She says her experience as a performer as well as running a dance school has been invaluable to her present job.

For many performers, however, being a swing is a first step up to a performing career. The job can be a slog, and potentially a dispiriting one: “Often they don't even get on stage!,” Howard exclaims. But there are benefits.

“I'm going to sound old fashioned,” Howard says, “but I think it’s incredibly good for a performer's soul [to do the hard yards]. People are used to being catapulted straight to the top, especially on screen, but I would say people who've been swings, who worked their way up, they understand what has got them to the top. They know that every drop of sweat and every minute they're working on craft and technique are bricks on the path, on the yellow brick road, and not one moment of that patience and dedication is wasted on that journey. Those who stay the distance very often get rewarded.

A scene from 'An American in Paris'.
A scene from 'An American in Paris'.

“And those who don't, well, the camaraderie is a huge reward in itself. To be part of something, to be a member of a company, I think is underrated (as an experience). It's the excitement of being part of that new family that comes together to make a story happen. Which explains why people stay in these difficult roles sometimes for years. There's something magical about it.”

'Phantom of the Opera' is playing Sydney until October 16, after which it moves to Melbourne from October 30 to January 30, 2023.


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