The Rockettes dance it up a notch with high-tech stagecraft
Heads invariably turn when just one Rockette walks into a room. But when two, long-legged members of the world’s most famous kick line move into view — particularly if they are decked out in form-fitting glittery silver costumes and arena-worthy eyelashes — you can almost feel the whiplash as male heads spin and women gaze in awe. I observed the phenomenon recently as two dancers paid a visit to the Sun-Times’ offices.
There is no mistaking that part of a Rockette’s job is perfecting the look that, since 1933, has launched tens of thousands of synchronized stage shows at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. And for more than a decade now, the Rockettes have expanded their ranks in order to head out on tour for the holidays.
The latest edition of the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” is now dancing its way from stops in St. Louis and Dallas to the Akoo Theatre in surburban Rosemont, where the show will play Dec. 14-30. And along with many of the time-tested classics that have become an inextricable part of the Rockettes’ DNA, this year’s show will feature a lavish nod to 21st century technology. It comes most notably in the form of a 13-minute-long number called “New York at Christmas” that has been designed to add a new dimension to the Rockettes by incorporating a 50-foot LED “wall” into the action, making it possible to conjure a virtual tour of Manhattan landmarks that culminates in Times Square.
“We revamped the show in 2007, for our 75th anniversary, with the goal of bringing it up to date,” said Julie Branam, director and choreographer of the national tour, and a crucial part of the “Christmas Spectacular” creative team led, since 2006, by Linda Haberman.
“The ‘New York at Christmas’ centerpiece puts the Rockettes, costumed in sparkling white coats, on a bright red, life-size, double-decker tour bus, with the non-Rockettes dancers and singers also part of the action,” said Branam. “Once they step off the bus, all the classic elements of the Rockettes are set in motion.”
The touring company features 18 Rockettes, rather than the 36 needed to fill the giant Radio City stage.
“The stages we perform on for the tour are much smaller than the Radio City stage, so even with fewer dancers the effect is the same,” Branam said.
And how are the dancers and the music adjusted for half the number of legs?
“I’m old-fashioned,” Branam confessed. “I take my pad of graph paper and colored pencils and figure out the spacing. As I tell my 15-year-old son, I have a very mathematical job.”
Long before the dancers arrive for rehearsals (the Radio City contingent rehearses in New York, while the two touring companies, one of which performs at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, rehearses in Myrtle Beach, Fla.), a team of three or four dancers gather to work through the basic layout of new numbers. Assistants are then brought in to flesh things out, culminating in a workshop that tests whether the whole thing will work.
As for the actual lineup of dancers, it is always in flux.
“We ask all the dancers to tell us where they would prefer to be — New York or on the road — but people move, situations change, there are pregnancies, so plans can shift until rehearsals begin. The intense work begins in late September and isn’t over til the end of December, with two teams of Rockettes in New York [a team can do as many as five shows per day there], while the touring company performs on a somewhat different schedule.”
As far as the classic Rockettes numbers go, be assured that the remarkable “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” sequence remains in tact. In the opening “Sleigh Ride” number the dancers become reindeer. And Santa raises the curtain for tap-dance-driven tour de force set to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
“We round out the second act with the elaborate, newly conceived ‘Let Christmas Shine’ section in which the dancers are dressed in costumes decorated with 3,000 crystals, with further illumination coming from a single cue that triggers every light,” explained Branam.
Wile the “Nativity Scene” remains part of the grand finale, there will be no animals this time around. Technology is a whole lot cheaper and easier to pack up and travel with than a camel. But adding a bit of family reality, the show also features a new scene in which two brothers, described by Branam as “a snarky teen, and a younger boy totally taken with Santa, look for a gift for their sister and end up at Santa’s North Pole workshop.”
So, what does it take to be a Rockette — a job that attracts close to 600 dancers to its annual audition?
“You must be 18, between 5’6” and 5’10-½”, and have the discipline to keep yourself fit for what has become more difficult and demanding dancing,” said Branam. “And you must be very attentive to detail — like the way your palm is facing, or how sharpl you turn your head or the height of your kick.”
The two veteran Rockettes with Chicago area roots who I chatted with earlier this season — Gabrielle Del Re of Hanover Park and Kristina Larson-Hauk of Yorkville — had planned to be in the Chicago company, but got switched to New York. Nevertheless, their stories are typical.
“I had strict ballet training from early on,” said Del Re, who` also performs with Chicago’s Elements Contemporary Ballet. “But once I saw the the Rockettes on TV I was just knocked out by how glamorous, classy and beautiful they were. And I followed in the footsteps of my older sister, who was a Rockette for six years, but is now retired.”
Larson-Hauk (who is trying to break into musical theater, and has danced in a couple of shows at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora), also discovered the Rockettes on TV, and, as she recalled: “I thought they were amazing, though initially I never thought about being one, or had any idea of how to get there. Then, in 1998, I went to see a male dancer I knew perform with the company at Rosemont, and he told me about an audition. I only got in on my second try.”
As Larson-Hauk observed: “These days the real challenge with the Rockettes’ shows is to hold on to everything that has long defined them, especially the precision, while also trying to find a way to challenge the stereotype.”