The first time Emily Ramirez saw “The Phantom of the Opera” – back in 2014 in Charlotte – she figured she wouldn’t be able to sit through the whole show: Surgery she’d recently had, to save her ballet career, would probably make it too painful.
“Phantom” returns to Charlotte on Wednesday. This time Ramirez will be onstage. Dancing.
The return to any stage seemed unlikely three years ago for the then-Charlotte Ballet dancer, after not one but two debilitating accidents. A surgeon told her she might always walk with a limp. “I was sure dancing wouldn’t happen again,” she said. “But our bodies are amazing, adaptable machines.”
So are our spirits. Ramirez, who had never wanted to be anything but a ballerina, had to find a new future – and did.
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In this newly staged North American tour of the long-running “Phantom,” she plays Meg Giry, close (and graceful) ballerina friend to the beleaguered female lead, Christine. Meg “needs to be able to dance en pointe,” says Ramirez. “She has to sing in the mezzo-soprano range, which I can do. And they wanted her to be a little mischievous. I felt I could live in that spectrum comfortably.”
Her new vocation is much different, she’s discovered, from the world of ballet.
“Ballet is incredibly nitpicky,” she says. “The director is constantly giving you notes on every detail of your performance. When I first got into this line of work, I thought I’d be picked apart. But instead I’ve found that when you’re cast in a role, it means the director trusts that you’re right for that part.”
It’s a different mindset: “A ballet company hires 20-year-old dancers for the long term. They hope you’ll get to the point they can use you as a principal.” But producers of musicals hire actors who can do the job now.
“There’s quite a lot of trust there,” she continues. “And it’s a little bit scary. I’m used to being micromanaged. Now, I find myself constantly doubting. I didn’t start training my voice until two years ago. And here I am on stage with people who … majored in vocal performance and opera. It’s vocally intimidating, but they also inspire me.”
That “they” includes a cast and orchestra of 52 people, one of the largest productions now on tour, in a special-effects-studded show overseen by Tony winners Matthew Bourne (“The Red Shoes”) and Cameron Mackintosh.
Ramirez, whose modest hope was once to walk without a limp, says she’s now dancing eight shows a week to crowds of 2,500 to 3,000 at every performance.
Charlotte: ‘amazing training ground’
Ramirez and her husband of 14 years (a mechanical engineer she met when they were partnered in high school ballet class) would have been happy staying in Charlotte, but she wanted to be a full-time actress – something she found tough to do here.
The couple eschewed Broadway (“We wanted a house and back yard for our two dogs”) for Chicago, with its opportunities in Actors Equity productions. “I love being a member of this union,” Ramirez says. “I have access to health insurance and a pension.”
She says Charlotte was “an amazing training ground for all sorts of art.” After she left ballet, she began doing voiceover work, teaching private ballet lessons, acting, singing and choreographing.
“I hope people in Charlotte know what incredible talent is in their midst,” she says. “You can’t beat a Broadway show for production values, but one of the most moving experiences I ever had in the theater was perfectly simple: I was part of a nuVoices Festival staged reading at Actor’s Theatre. There were just four chairs on stage and four actors reading Matthew Wells’s ‘A Beautiful Day,’ a play about 9/11. I basically had to have a nervous breakdown on stage every night. It was gut-wrenching.”
Ramirez had first come to Charlotte for then-N.C. Dance Theatre’s 2012-13 season, and in November 2013 had her first possible career-ender. She told the Observer about the injury: “I was ready to make a jump, I hit a slippery spot on the floor and heard two huge pops in my right knee. The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) had ruptured. The pain came from my tibia slamming into my femur.”
She’d been slated for the lead in the company’s “Dangerous Liaisons” in 2014; now she’d be having the ACL reconstructed, and the ensuing physical therapy.
Then, the unthinkable happened – again. In August 2014, she and her husband, Chase, were biking when she mistakenly grabbed the handbrake. She flew over the handlebars, and her chin hit the pavement. Two teeth got knocked out; four more cracked in half. Her chin broke in two.
Ten days after the bike accident, an MRI showed the ACL graft needed repairing. That meant another operation.
Dancing seemed impossible. And with missing teeth and a broken jaw, Ramirez wondered if she’d ever appear onstage again.
But she didn’t want to give up performing. She’d sung – in the car, alone – but didn’t have any formal voice training. But a local director thought she had potential.
“Chip Decker (of ATC) hired me with no experience onstage other than dancing,” she says. “He took a risk.” When he cast her in “Rock of Ages,” she discovered a love for musical theater – and the fact that her ballet background was a plus in the genre.
She credits her “amazing” physical therapist in Indian Trail, Joe Tedesco, with helping her not only avoid that predicted limp, but dance again.
She cherishes the longevity in her new art form: “You can’t be a ballet dancer for the rest of your life. But you can be an artist.”
When: Jan. 17-28.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Tickets: Beginning at $25; carolinatix.org; 704-372-1000 or at the Blumenthal box office.