The Radio City Rockettes are embarking on a new holiday season. From chin and shoulders to fingertips to toes, their mastery comes down to the finest detail.
Early last month, 80 dancers gathered in the basement of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle on Manhattan’s West Side to study the floor. Traced in tape on a gentle black surface, as if on a nighttime sky, was an improbable crisscross of blue, white, red and green markings — dotted lines, parabolas, half-circles and other bent shapes. It may not have been an astronomer’s rendering of deep space (though it appeared that way) nor Einstein’s theory of relativity sketched out (framed by numbered rows, it resembled that, too), but the floor was alive with possibilities.
“Hannah, level your chin.”
“Allie, higher with your left arm.”
“Yes! Yes! You have it.”
This Friday, November 10th, the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes will open its 85th season. The work began tucked away in this 19th century church several blocks from the Great Stage at Radio City Music Hall. Exhorted by Karen Keeler, the group’s creative director, along with two assistant choreographers, the women demonstrated once again that the artistry rises from an exacting devotion to detail.
“It’s the fine tuning that makes all this look effortless,” said Keeler. “And then, when you’re watching the show, all this just magically disappears. Then it’s just beautiful.”
For as many as six shows a day, stretching through New Year’s Day, two troupes of 36 dancers (and four swing dancers for each group) will embrace holiday tradition with renditions of Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, Sleigh Ride, and Snow, among several standards.
They will draw upon highly synchronized preparation that leaves nothing to chance and calls upon the women to turn into mathematicians of a kind. A grasp of spatial relationships is vital.
“Say you’re Rockette X and you’re starting at number 2 at the blue dot,” said Keeler. “Then you may have to move three numbers, then five numbers, this way or that, so you’re between a dot and a solid. And to keep the formations perfect everyone has to be in sync.”
Harmony depends, too, on complete body control — the thrust of the chin, the bearing of their shoulders, down to their finger tips and even the look in their eyes. Everyone has to hold their gaze just so. Out of this precision comes grace, the achievement belonging not to any one dancer but to the final, dazzling montage.
“Yes, our brains are going a mile a minute, thinking about our feet and arms, everything,” said Nicole Baker, “but at the same time, we’re thinking of the big picture and this amazing thing we’re all creating together.”
In the 12 years Baker has been a Rockette, many life milestones have passed, including the births of her three children. The year she began she was the only new dancer in the cast, and she carries still an appreciation for what the eight new Rockettes this season are experiencing. “I still get nervous,” she said.
In coming together, the dancers draw upon skills and techniques finely honed in ballet, modern dance and jazz, a versatility that informs and actually enhances the performance of the ensemble.
“You have to leave your ego at the door, but it’s more than that,” said Alissa LaVergne. “We want to do well for each other. We want to make everybody proud, and the only way we can do that is to work as a team.”
About to start her eighth season, LaVergne grew up watching the Rockettes on TV each year during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. From her small town of Groves in southeast Texas, the Rockettes seemed like a distant dream. She first saw the Radio City show in 2009, a year before she became a part of it.
She did not fully appreciate then the nuance that went into not only each step but what dancers call the pathway to each step. That includes the Rockettes’ iconic eye-high kicks that bring each show to a crescendo. Each dancer is allotted a mere two feet of space across to maneuver — not much more than the width of their shoulders — meaning they have to be on point with the angle of their arms or else they risk plunking another dancer in the back of the head. The margin for error is that slight.
“Everyone has to kick the same height,” says Keeler. “But it’s not just height. That’s actually just a small part. Keeping it all precise is not just about the peak of the kick, but getting it down at the same moment. No part of a step is less important than the other. Every transition matters.”
Keeler, a former Rockette, has the manner of a favorite teacher, a taskmaster who manages to coat her appeals for excellence with kindness. She works rehearsals and each show with “squinted eyes,” aiming, she said, to detect the smallest flaw. The approach serves her well, say when she’s gauging the Rockettes as they perform The Twelve Days of Christmas. Are the formations flowing smoothly from the two turtle doves to the three French hens and then to the four calling birds? These are the questions that engross her.
The rehearsal floor had been blocked out in tape for sets, such as the real double decker bus that glides onto the stage during the New York at Christmas number, and for the three elevators which dramatically rise and fall as they carry the performers onstage. But when the Rockettes moved their rehearsals 10 days ago to the 144-foot-wide, 66-foot-deep stage at Radio City, the entire production became more real.
Soon they were accompanied by a 36-piece orchestra, and on Saturday, they were finally in full costume. The return to the majestic theater brought the dancers near the rarified Mighty Wurlitzer organ, in front of 5,933 seats and beneath the cascading arches of the proscenium — a spectacle that still takes away the breath of audiences and the dancers, as well.
“It never fails,” says Baker. “When the elevator is rising up and the music is building and building, you hear the audience go “oooh” and the whole theater lights up in a snow flurry, and the crowd goes crazy — it still gives me goosebumps.
“And this year, I know, will be the same. It gets to me every time.”
About The Madison Square Garden Company
The Madison Square Garden Company (MSG) is a world leader in live sports and entertainment experiences. The company presents or hosts a broad array of premier events in its diverse collection of iconic venues: New York's Madison Square Garden, The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and Beacon Theatre; the Forum in Inglewood, CA; The Chicago Theatre; and the Wang Theatre in Boston. Other MSG properties include legendary sports franchises: the New York Knicks (NBA), the New York Rangers (NHL) and the New York Liberty (WNBA); two development league teams -- the Westchester Knicks (NBAGL) and the Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL); and one of the leading North American esports organizations, Counter Logic Gaming. In addition, the Company features the popular original production - the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes - and through Boston Calling Events, produces outdoor festivals, including New England's preeminent Boston Calling Music Festival. Also under the MSG umbrella is TAO group, a world-class hospitality group with globally-recognized entertainment dining and nightlife brands: Tao, Marquee, Lavo, Avenue, The Stanton Social, Beauty & Essex and Vandal. More information is available at www.themadisonsquaregardencompany.com