Rockette Karen Keeler talks about the newest version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular: The Rockettes Celebration,which is at Radio City Music Hall through December 30. Karen Keeler, who serves as a dance captain and assistant to the terrifically talented Linda Haberman, the director and choreographer of the Rockettes Celebration, is celebrating her 13th season with the dance company.
RECOMMENDED: See the full guide to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Karen Keeler knows that beneath the glitz of any Rockette is a dancer in possession of a rare gift: precision technique. The only company in the world with mastery over this rigorous dance form, the Rockettes show what precision technique is all about when they return to Radio City Music Hall beginning November 9 for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular: The Rockettes Celebration. Keeler, a former ballet dancer who earned a master’s from Tisch before becoming a Rockette—in other words, character heels weren’t in her closet—is currently enjoying her 13th year with the group. A dance captain and assistant to the scintillating, demanding director and choreographer Linda Haberman, Keeler has her hands full. And she loves it. In honor of it being that time of year again, she spoke about her career.
Time Out New York: How old were you when you started dancing?
Karen Keeler: Six. I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I started taking ballet initially at a small school, but I had a really wonderful teacher who had come from Scotland, and her name was Constance Reynolds. She had had pretty severe knee injuries from her career and had stopped dancing and could only teach, basically, from sitting in a chair, so my initial training was very much one on one: Me, at the ballet barre, privately, with her sitting in a chair next to me.
Time Out New York: That’s incredible.
Karen Keeler: Yeah. Literally scrutinizing every little detail with x-ray vision.
Time Out New York: I wonder where you get it.
Karen Keeler: Right? [Laughs] It’s so fitting that here I land. She was strict, and I was very classically trained and detail oriented—learning all of the ballet terms and being able to spell them.
Time Out New York: Was her teaching based on the Royal Academy of Dance?
Karen Keeler: It was. And there was some Cecchetti and some Vagonova. I got a good mix of everything. I took classes with everyone, but I always took private lessons with Mrs. Reynolds. She encouraged me to take tap and jazz as well. I sort of only wanted to do ballet, but she felt it was important that I do everything. So I added in tap and jazz and did that pretty much all the way through high school. Each summer I would go to a ballet school—SAB or the Bolshoi Academy in Vail, Colorado. The Pennsylvania Ballet.
Time Out New York: How close were you to Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet?
Karen Keeler: It’s actually a few hours away; I never did any training there. I had another private coach who was at the Pennsylvania Ballet and has been at the School of American Ballet, Olga Kostritzky. I had gone to the Pennsylvania Ballet to take class and she pulled me aside and said, “Where are you from? You need to come here every week.” So then my mom was taking me to Philadelphia every week to take class with her. We were always doing two-hour ventures [so that I could] take class with some bigger teacher, and this was always encouraged by Mrs. Reynolds. Looking back, she created a really amazing environment. She didn’t hold onto me.
Time Out New York: When did you go to SAB?
Karen Keeler: I was 13. That was amazing. It was my second summer away. I had gone to the Washington Ballet previously, but coming here as a 13-year-old was incredible—living in the dorms at the Rose Building in Lincoln Center? It was very different from what I had known because I hadn’t had any of that Balanchine training—I trained with Suki Schorer and Susan Pilarre and Andrei Kramarevsky and all of those old-school teachers. It was one of the best summers. That and the Bolshoi summer were the highlights.
Time Out New York: Did SAB ask you to stay on as a full-time student?
Karen Keeler: They didn’t actually. And as much as I loved the program, I felt that I wasn’t a Balanchine dancer. So it was a great experience, but I knew it wasn’t a fit for me. I did the Boston Ballet, too, and they actually asked me to stay on. But I was going into my senior year of high school, and I wanted to go home and finish. So I didn’t stay up in Boston. But that was another great program.
Time Out New York: How were your parents about all of this? Did they dance?
Karen Keeler: No. Nobody did! In my family, everyone’s sort of on the math and science end. I somehow turned out a dancer. I did have an aunt that danced, and that might have been an early connection, but other than that, nobody else did. My parents have always been very supportive, but not in any sort of intrusive way. Obviously, when I got to hard decisions, like am I going to stay in Boston or am I going to come home, they always encouraged me to do what I thought was right and education was very important to them, so staying in school was important also. I knew I wanted to come back and finish school. [Laughs nervously] Then I was supposed to go to Juilliard.
Time Out New York: You were?
Karen Keeler: This is the other thing. I was planning to go and then I just burned out. I needed a break, and I didn’t go. How many people pass up that opportunity? At the time, I just needed to stop dancing, I wanted to be home, I wanted to be what I thought was a “normal” person, so I quit.
Time Out New York: What made you feel that way?
Karen Keeler: At the time, I think it was a little bit like being 18 and having a boyfriend and just wanting to be able to go to the football game. Not that I didn’t do those things—I just wanted more of it. So I stayed home and went to college in Scranton, and I studied psychology. I graduated from the University of Scranton—it’s a small Jesuit school. I took a good almost two years off and then I really started to miss it. Toward the end of college, I wanted to dance again; I knew I wanted to come to New York. I didn’t want to be in the audition circuit—that really wasn’t my thing, so I decided that I would apply to grad school. I went to NYU, to Tisch, and that’s when I did my MFA. That was an amazing experience, and having been strictly classically trained, it changed me as a dancer. To go into a school like that was kind of scary, but the teachers—in a very encouraging way—sort of broke me down and rebuilt a more layered dancer.
Time Out New York: Were you open to that rebuilding?
Karen Keeler: I was! I remember one of my teachers telling me that if she saw me walking around the school she wanted me to not be standing up tall. She wanted me to learn to round my shoulders and get a little more into the ground, and that seemed ridiculous, but that was the initial starting to break my mold of this ballerina and this posture.
Time Out New York: Who was it?
Karen Keeler: [Laughs] It was Phyllis.
Time Out New York: I knew it was Phyllis Lamhut!
Karen Keeler: I took a comp class, and she would just torture me. We’d have to do a project: Create three-eighths of choreography, and mine was never right. No matter what I did, it was wrong. But it was an amazing experience. I worked a lot with Cherylyn Lavagnino, who was a great mentor to me through my time at Tisch. Oddly enough, toward the end of my first year, a friend of mine who was a Rockette said, “You should audition.” It didn’t make any sense to me. Here I was barefoot and rolling around on the floor, and I should go to a Rockette audition? It was foreign. I went to the audition and got hired, but I waited a year to finish my master’s. I started my first Rockette season in 2000.
Time Out New York: What choreographers did you work with at Tisch?
Karen Keeler: Diane Coburn Bruning. I did a Graham piece working with Miki Orihara. We had to do Graham classes every morning when we were doing that piece. It was just brutal on the body, but it was intense: I felt really, really strong doing the Graham technique everyday. Kevin Wynn. One of my favorite things about it was all the different people I got to be around in that environment.
Time Out New York: You’ve had an unusual career.
Karen Keeler: [Laughs] It’s sort of run the gamut. During my first year as a Rockette, I cried almost every day because I couldn’t connect to what this job was about. It just didn’t make sense to me. To get through the season was the feat, and then I came back the second year and after that, Linda asked me to be a swing and a dance captain and to assist her. I instantly loved the work, and this goes back to my initial training of the detail and knowing exactly what the choreographer wants. My brain works that way. It’s hard for me to go and take a contemporary dance class and just…
Time Out New York: Squiggle around?
Karen Keeler: Yeah! And just do movement. I still take contemporary-lyrical classes because I think it’s challenging to break myself out of this mold sometimes, too. But I felt like Linda’s choreography was such a good match for me. I understand how she wants it to be without necessarily thinking about it. Just the way I executed it seemed to be what she wanted.
Time Out New York: During that first year you said that you didn’t understand what the Rockettes were all about. Had you watched many shows?
Karen Keeler: I had come to see the Christmas Spectacular with my family a few times as a little girl, but I had no idea about the amount of detail and all the numbers and the lines and that you’re going to tell me where my elbow needs to be and where my eyeball needs to be and just all of those layers and layers of minutia that people do not realize. That is the beautiful thing about it! No one knows how hard our rehearsal process is in terms of layering on all that stuff to get it to look so effortless. It’s magical in that way that all that effort is somehow gone.
Time Out New York: What made you want to return to the Rockettes after that first difficult season?
Karen Keeler: I think I was ready for a change. I had enjoyed the downtown experience, but I wanted a little more stability. After I did my first season, I felt it was a good fit for the kind of technical dancer I was. I could also tap and do jazz. I had all of the initial training, the technique, and I think that combination is what makes a really good Rockette. You have to be versatile, but foundation-wise, without really clean technique, you just can’t get through this choreography.
Time Out New York: Why?
Karen Keeler: Linda’s choreography is built a lot on lines, and you have to be able to know what a correct line is: If you’re in an arabesque, if you’re in an open bevel, what is correct? Some people can naturally execute it and others have to tweak and find it. I think the more technically trained dancers have it naturally and most of them have more of an extensive ballet background.
Time Out New York: Could you tell that she was doing something different right away?
Karen Keeler: I could and part of that was because I was on tour in the CAA markets of the Christmas Spectacular, so I wasn’t in New York. Linda was the supervising director for the tour, so for six years I was doing that, and I would come home and see the show in New York, and they were very different. I had a feeling that there was something really special about the choreography she was creating and all of us that worked with her felt that. Also, the demand that she puts on you is so encouraging: to always try to be better. Every single day, every season, we try to be better. And the most beautiful thing about it is that she is the example of that. Every time she creates a new number it’s better than the last one; there are no two numbers that are the same. It’s great to have her as our leader, as the example. We can’t come back and do what we did last year even if it’s the same choreography. It has to be enhanced, it has to be better. Maybe it’s the smallest nuance, but we’ll find it.
Time Out New York: Because these dances have to grow—just because it’s precision technique doesn’t mean they are static.
Karen Keeler: Right, and we’re finding that a lot this year with the video-game number, which was new last year. It’s going to be better choreographically with the technical elements, it’s going to be a better story, and there’s a little bit of a new ending to the number.
Time Out New York: How are you tweaking it?
Karen Keeler: Choreographically, we’ve made some clear changes. There are changes in the LED screen and with the daughter and the mom. At the end of the number, there’s this cute connection that they have with the Rockettes where there’s a little playoff and they high-five us and it ties it more together leading into their song. Where we’ve tried to make it a little more clear is in our interaction with what’s going on with the screen, so that reads a little better. Some of the choreography has been changed to make it cleaner: We’ve really tightened the big battle section in terms of spacing. We’ve changed a few eights completely in new choreography, and I think it all stems, again, from getting us to be more precise. To execute this number in the classic Rockette style of precision, which no matter what, is always our main goal. That’s the company that we are.
Time Out New York: When you were on tour, how many cities did you perform in?
Karen Keeler: Oh, there was a lot. It was six years. It was amazing to visit so many cities across the country and to be on tour with this group of women. I looked forward to it every single year and a lot of that is about the camaraderie that the Rockettes have. It’s such a team, honestly, and without that team effort it just doesn’t work. We say this to the dancers all the time: It takes 100 percent from every single one of you or this just will not work.
Time Out New York: What is still challenging about this for you?
Karen Keeler: As an assistant and a dance captain what’s challenging is finding new ways to talk about the choreography. How do I make this number different and better for me this year in terms of what I say to make this step better? Is there a way I can demonstrate this? What little nuance haven’t I found in these eight counts of choreography? So I try to stick with some of the core things that I always say, but to also find something different or a new concept. Last year, I had a little theme that you had a nutshell of information, and you had to keep all these little notes in your head, in your nutshell, and you would know every time that you started “Reindeer” you had to think about specific things. That your elbow was going to go flat on this count, that we were going to make a big pop into the jingle bell. It’s so all 36 dancers are thinking about the same thing at the same time. I try to also keep it a little interactive. If I’m in a cleaning session with them, I want them to be on the same page with me, so I’ll often call someone out and say, “What are you thinking about at this part? What should we be thinking about?” So it’s not just me spewing it out to them; I want to know that they’re in it with me. And it’s a layering process. First, it’s getting the details and then, are our lines straight? Finally, it’s really finessing it to find that effortless precision and to bring the dance quality out of them to make a connection to it.
Time Out New York: As a Rockette, do you have to have an awareness of your body like those in a corps de ballet do?
Karen Keeler: Exactly. It’s like we’re an extreme corps de ballet. We’re closer together. It’s minutiae. We would describe our arms as being a very shallow V, a shallow V, a true V or a very true V—in those increments. So it’s not, “Put your arms up in a V.” It’s that kind of detail. And not to say that ballet companies don’t do that, because of course they do, but I feel like it goes to the extreme with us. No matter what the number is, no matter what the style is, it’s about the precision. “Shine” feels a little more dancey in its quality, but still every single second is broken down. That’s one of my favorite numbers conceptually. In the slow-motion section, it starts with one Rockette and everyone joins into it. It is a beautiful image about what we are as a company of dancers. Yes, we are individuals but without all 36—without the whole—it doesn’t work.
Time Out New York: What does it feel like to perform “Wooden Soldiers” compared to some of the newer numbers?
Karen Keeler: “Wooden Soldiers” takes a little bit more of your mind. You can’t ever check out or go on autopilot because there is so much counting. Opening the gates is 24 steps, but closing the gates is 20. I always say, “You have to be so present in this job every second,” but especially in “Wooden Soldier” because of the extreme precision of the straight lines and all the geometric patterns and the strict rules about guiding.
Time Out New York: Could you explain what guiding is?
Karen Keeler: In “Soldiers,” the rule is that when we’re moving as a unit, you’re guiding two chests over—so you’re looking to two chests over from you and that’s what keeps you in a straight line as you’re moving that line around or shifting it. And the fall, obviously, takes a tremendous amount of focus and effort and precision.
Time Out New York: Pilates
Karen Keeler: [Laughs] Core strength. But that’s for everything. In our eye-high kicks, we’re not touching. It’s all about your core, your center. You have to be able to do it on your own even though there are two women two feet away from you on either side.
Time Out New York: So you’re never touching the backs of the women beside you?
Karen Keeler: No. You can imagine what would happen if everyone started pushing on each other. You know they’re there. You might feel the fabric every so often, but the rule is that you’re holding your own ground. It takes tremendous strength. I think that another thing that is deceiving is the kicking. It’s one of the highlights of what we do, but certainly not the epitome of what we do.
Time Out New York: Is it hard to maintain the strength that you need to perform as a Rockette?
Karen Keeler: It’s not necessarily hard, but it’s different. I take class year-round. I try to stay in shape and prepared in a cardiovascular way, but there’s nothing that can really prepare you for the intensity of this except dancing it full out all the time. For the new dancers to get that stamina, they should be kicking every single day. That’s the thing that’s going to get you in the end when you’re exhausted because the legs aren’t going to want to go up. And they have to.
Time Out New York: What is your training?
Karen Keeler: I take ballet class and contemporary class. I do a technique called Physique 57, and I also teach it. It keeps me prepared for this work. We’ve been doing a lot of workshopping [of material] for what’s ahead for the Rockettes. Throughout the year, there are often times when we work in workshops. Linda is starting a little bit of creating for what’s in the future, which is always challenging because what comes out of her is never expected.
Time Out New York: Is there anything new in the show this year?
Karen Keeler: It’s the 85th celebration, so there is a costume retrospective. There are six costumes from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s representing the fashion history of the Rockettes. It’s not a long number—it’s just six women, but it’s a great tribute to the 85 years of the Rockettes performing in New York and of the different costumes and how they’ve changed yet always stayed current through the years.
Time Out New York: What is it like to go from performing to being in the front of the studio?
Karen Keeler: I think I feel most at home as a dance captain. I love performing and it’s great to be on the stage with the other women, but I really love the teaching aspect. It’s very rewarding to see the progress that they make and to watch them peak.
Time Out New York: What are you looking for?
Karen Keeler: I’m looking for the big picture. For my eye not to be pulled at any point. That’s when I know that we’re peaking: I can watch the run of every number and not have any distraction. That there wasn’t an arm late or a head late or this diagonal got off.
Time Out New York: You can tell when one arm is off?
Karen Keeler: Immediately. I’ll sometimes say, “I saw something out of the corner of this eye—I’m not sure who it was.” You instantly know. Through years of doing this, I’ve built up such an überawareness of detail. I joke with them that sometimes I sense when they don’t feel confident about something—like if they’re running a number with a section they don’t feel they’ve locked into—I have anxiety too. I feel what they are going through. It’s such a beautiful connection, really.
Time Out New York: What allows someone to be able to cope with it or not?
Karen Keeler: I think it takes a lot of self-discipline and some humility. You have to know that it’s not about you being the best. It’s about the group being the best. And these women—honestly, they’re just incredible people. They are so disciplined and have such respect for what they do. There’s no way you would take this job on if you didn’t love it and have that desire to push yourself and to be told every single day that you’re doing something wrong until you get it right. And to be able to take notes all the time, no matter how many years you’ve been doing the job. We’re going to continue to give you notes. We’re going to find something wrong to make it better.
Time Out New York: What is your relationship with Linda?
Karen Keeler: I barely had any contact with her early on. She was over there on a pedestal, and she was intimidating. She is very intimidating. She just has a presence and, for me, coming from the ballet world where I had to curtsy to my teacher every day and give her a hug, I had that respect that when she came into the room, I was standing. I wasn’t sitting. I couldn’t really look her in the eye and even the first year I was assisting her, I worried about how I was going to talk to her. I remember my first day of assisting. All she said was, “Are you ready?” and I said, “Okay,” and she said, “Good, because you’re teaching right now.” She threw me in. There I was in the front of the room teaching the choreography. She didn’t hold my hand and take me through it, and I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Obviously, over the years I’ve been able to open up. I continue to respect her, but she’s a human being and she has gone through all the things that we go through and I feel really fortunate to have a good relationship with her. Even now, being in the studio with her today, I learn things from her. She has a way of seeing something on the girls that I don’t always see—it’s like I’m almost there, but she’ll see it before I do, which is exactly the way it should be. She should still be a step ahead of the game. Or finding the words—I’ll see something and struggle with the words. And then she has the exact direction to give them. And it’s really nice to bounce back and forth with her when we’re in front of the room, going back and forth: What do you think? How can we make this better? I feel so fortunate that she will look to me for what I think: “Should we change that step? Do we think we can get it to be exact?” I’m really lucky.
Time Out New York: When she’s choreographing on you and others, how many dancers does she work with?
Karen Keeler: It’ll start with maybe four and then if she needs more bodies to see how it’ll work, we’ll add more. It’s pretty small. She always has a framework before I even walk into the studio. A few times it’s been starting from scratch, but she usually has a sound framework. She’ll just throw out a few eights of choreography: “Let me see what that looks like. Okay, now try it this way.” There’s a lot of play with it. And that will continue on and on and on. Obviously, a workshop is just to figure things out. But she has a good base before we get in the studio. She’s pretty clear on what she wants. She always has been.
Time Out New York: How has she turned the Rockettes around?
Karen Keeler: The caliber of dancing has really gotten a boost. I think the women who are attracted to this job are stronger dancers. Her choreography has kept us current—or maybe relevant is a better word. We’re an important and relevant part of the dance community. Obviously, the Rockettes are known for being glamorous, being beautiful womenand for being precision dancers, but I think there’s a human aspect that’s come out of her direction. Yes, of course, we’re all those things, but you can also connect to us as women. We’re modern and fresh and we epitomize fashion and fitness. We’re athletes! If the Rockettes were up on a pedestal, now that pedestal has been brought to the public. In Linda’s work, there are no apologies. There’s such a pride behind all the choreography we do. We’re a group of women, and we’re strong and confident and independent and powerful. We’re not just that glamorous thing.
Time Out New York: Can you talk about the technique? What does a Rockette need?
Karen Keeler: I teach the Rockette summer intensive. I work with a lot of girls, and they all have great dance training in terms of their ballet, their tap and their jazz, but I feel like there’s such a fine line between putting those techniques together to find what this kind of work is, because it’s not strictly one or the other. It’s like you have to mesh them all together. That’s the first thing. I’ll get a really strong ballet dancer, but she has no attack in her body. So it’s meshing that together and then layering on the discipline of being really sharp but being able to finesse the choreography to not look robotic. Again, to make it a little more humanized. Sometimes I feel people associate our sharp, clean precision with being robotic. But it has to ease out and be human again.
Time Out New York: How do you teach that?
Karen Keeler: I’ll teach steps very black-and-white and then it’s pulling out the quality of how you do this movement. I think that’s what makes the technique what it is. It’s very black-and-white, but within that, you’ve got to stretch it out to make it dance. It’s dance. And sometimes when I’m working with the girls, I’ll say, “Just take that section of choreography and dance it as if you were in a dance class. Forget all the stuff I just told you.” Sometimes I think they get so stuck in there. So it’s always trying to find that balance. Then I’ll say, “Take 50 percent of that and put back on a little more precision.” It’s challenging.
Time Out New York: What’s the biggest misconception about the Rockettes?
Karen Keeler: It’s that we’re cookie cutters. That if you threw us into another genre of dance that we wouldn’t succeed. And that’s so far from the truth. They would flourish. They have all that in them. You don’t always see it from them as a Rockette. There’s such a strength in these women that is maybe overshadowed by the glamour.
Time Out New York: Have you ever thought of leaving?
Karen Keeler: I did actually, last year at the end of the season. It was a really tough season and I ended up performing a lot and my body was hurting. I just needed to go away and have a little break and just refocus on what I love about it. So here I am. And I’m having a great season.
Radio City Christmas Spectacular: The Rockettes Celebration is at Radio City Music Hall Nov 9–Dec 30.