When dancer Emma Pfaeffle tried out for the ensemble of the Broadway musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” she wound up in a major role: Veruca Salt. And she has both ballet and voice lessons to thank for it.
In the new “Charlie,” Veruca is the spoiled daughter of a Russian oligarch-type. And the character is obsessed with ballet.
Emma Pfaeffle in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’Joan Marcus
That made Emma’s training and professional work spot on for the role: As a child, she was encouraged by her teacher to go on pointe at age 9, giving her an early start. In 2012, she graduated from SUNY Purchase Dance Conservatory, and she’s performed with Ballet Hispanico and Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses.
For “Charlie” choreographer Josh Bergasse, who knew of Emma’s ballet chops, the added ability allowed the character to evolve. “I wasn’t sure it was going to be on point until it was Emma,” he said.
Landing this role was major break for Emma, who has since received a Chita Rivera Award nomination for Best Female Dancer in a Broadway Show. Bergasse, too, is nominated for his choreography.
In an interview with Dance.com, Emma Pfaeffle shares what happened in the casting call, how she came back from a vocal chord injury and how she trained to return to pointe shoes.
How did the audition process start?
Emma Pfaeffle: “I was called in for the ensemble. At the dance call, the casting director knew me because she cast me in the “An American in Paris” workshop. My call back was for the ensemble. After I sang my song, she said, ‘Can you stay a little later and read for Veruca?'”
You must have had very little time to prepare?
“I went outside and read the [script]. I did it in an English accent. I thought of the movie. They said thank you and that was that. I was doing ‘Finding Neverland’ at the time. About a week later, they called me on a Friday afternoon and my agent was like ‘Can you go ASAP?’
And you had to do more in that round?
“It was the whole creative team this time. And producers. I did the scene again in an English accent and I sang. Then they asked me to sing again, but an upbeat song. I was like, ‘I only have one audition song! How about if I sing it faster?”
Why do you only have one audition song?
“I have had a long road with singing. I never took a lesson until I injured my vocal chords.”
As a dancer, what did you learn from the lessons?
“Singing technique is the exact opposite of dance training, where you tie a ribbon around your rib cage. With singing, you have to stick your stomach out. Your diagram sits under your solar plexus. It’s a working muscle you need to develop. To get proper air, you have to breathe into your ribs and really loosen up. I didn’t understand how to no hold my stomach. I have so much more respect for singers now. Singing is really hard.”
Once you got the part of Veruca, when did the pointe shoes come in? And how is it going?
“It was about a week into the lab. It just happened. Now my best friend is ice. I get a bucket and fill it with freezing cold water and a bag of ice. I sit there for 10 to 15 minutes.”
How did you prepare to dance eight shows a week in pointe shoes?
“‘Finding Neverland’ ended in August. I had five months of unemployment. My physical therapist Joe Conger, at Silver Spring Wellness, and I came up with a strategy to train me. I’m 26, and I haven’t been in point shoes in a second. I did a one-night gig for a friend in 2016.
We would do pilates, and he changed my core. I did work that I have never done before. I attribute my able-ness now to Pilates. I have really unstable ankles. We did a lot of core strengthening and ankle strengthening, also gyrokinesis and self-massage on my feet to keep them flexible.
What kind of shoes do you wear, and did you have to adjust for Broadway?
Russian Pointes have been my shoes since high school. They are really rare to find. One place in the city has them. On a Broadway stage, you have tracks for the sets, and I have to maneuver around all that. We glue rubber onto the shoes so I don’t slip.
How does it feel to make this career jump?
I’ve always been ensemble, so it was weird to be not in it. During rehearsals, I would be dancing on the side!