Totally kick-ass

The Rockettes have two new numbers, thanks to their bold choreographer. Finally, a reason for locals to care about Christmas.

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View a photo gallery of the Rockettes


Thirty-six Rockettes are neatly arranged into the two levels of a double-decker tour bus that glides under the Tiffany snowflake, rolls into a wintry Central Park and then loops around to Times Square. There, the women hop off and peel away white-velvet cinched coats to reveal flirty halter dresses. Split into green and red halves, they form patterns that show off saucy shoulders and legs before reuniting for the number’s kicky finale, complete with fireworks.Consider, of course, that this is all happening on a stage.

Yet despite the high-tech wizardry of New York at Christmas—prepared for the 75th anniversary of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular—one thing is clear: What makes this sparkly addition come alive aren’t the special effects, or the big bus, but the scrupulous, adorably sassy choreography that culminates in one of the most explosive, quintessential-Rockette numbers ever created. For that, thank Linda Haberman.

“I wanted to do a New York number because the Rockettes are such a New York symbol,” the choreographer says after a recent rehearsal. “I’m always trying to push the dancing.” For her second season as the director of the Christmas Spectacular, Haberman has not only overhauled the entire show (including the dreaded Nativity scene), she’s also accomplished something even more momentous: Her Rockettes don’t just stand around like eye candy. They dance.

“We started planning the 75th anniversary two years ago,” writes Jay Marciano, president of Madison Square Garden Entertainment, in an e-mail. “We felt it was time to bring in someone with a new perspective to direct and choreograph.…It’s Linda’s artistic vision that will set the stage for the next 75 years.”


Haberman

Because the choreography in NYAC— pronounced “ny-ack” backstage—is so involved, rehearsals were moved from Radio City to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in order to accommodate both full casts of Rockettes (80 dancers in all, including swings) at once. Two studios—nearly matching the width and depth of Radio City’s vast stage—were constructed. At one rehearsal, Haberman put the casts—arranged as if sitting in two buses—through their paces as the dancers engaged in a rapid-fire medley of picture snapping, synchronized arm waves and seated Rockette kicks. “We’re almost parked,” the choreographer assured her troops.

“This section could be worse,” dryly added Karen Keeler, one of Haberman’s assistant choreographers, scanning the room for any body part out of alignment. “Let me say that.” After the dancers mastered much of the quick, detailed movement, Haberman—as fit as any of her dancers in a black striped sweater, tights and character heels—offered advice in her usual succinct way: “It’s a ton of repetition. When it gets fast, stay in your little world. Stay calm.”

View a photo gallery of the Rockettes




Having mastered Haberman’s choreography at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle (top), the Rockettes take it to Radio City for tech rehearsals (bottom).

Haberman began working on NYAC in April; two months later, she set up a workshop with 24 Rockettes, which allowed her to see the rough picture onstage, complete with a life-size bus. “When we first started learning the travel section, we were sitting on little chairs and cubes pretending we were on the upper deck of the bus,” Keeler recalls. “When we actually got on it, we had to make adjustments—how your arms could move in and out of the railing and dealing with the stairs and the windows.”

With Haberman in charge, the lost art of precision dance suddenly has a shot at rebirth. After studying at the School of American Ballet, she became entranced with Broadway and specifically Bob Fosse—her choreography, without sacrificing any of the Rockettes’ finely honed attack, recalls his humor, feminine power and sexiness. With the show’s other new number, Let Christmas Shine, Haberman transports precision dance to a sophisticated place. In one moment, a single Rockette appears, and then the rest gradually fill in the space, moving more lyrically than usual as the music builds, until all 36 are present—proving that their strength is as a group.

Because of Haberman, the Rockettes now offer some of the finest dancing to be found in New York—certainly surpassing what’s on Broadway. “Someone will come up to me at a ballet class and ask, ‘You’re a Rockette? I hear they’re doing really great things now,’ ” Keeler says. “Before, you’d get this reaction like, ‘Oh.’ ” She laughs. “Now I think of the Rockettes as a dance company. We’re not a troupe or a group or a team. We are a company and we work like one.”When the curtain finally comes down, Haberman will project stars from the Nativity over the entire theater. “I want the audience to feel like it’s encompassed by the whole universe,” she says. “And then my singers come back out and do this version of ‘Joy to the World’ that’s going to make you want to stand up and clap your hands. They lead us to the curtain, which rises.” She hesitates, and her face blossoms into a victorious smile. “I’m going to do real curtain calls. I understand it’s never been done.”

Radio City Christmas Spectacular runs through Dec 30 at Radio City Music Hall.

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