To be a Rockette this time of year is to be in demand. The renowned Radio City Christmas Spectacular features two casts, each one showcasing the talent of 36 of the primo-dancers. They alternate to perform as many as 25-30 shows a week, with 4-5 shows scheduled a day and often 6 shows on Saturdays.
Current director-choreographer Julie Branam performed as a Rockette for 14 years and directed the shows on the road beginning in 1998. In her second year at the helm in New York, she continues the tradition of evoking the Christmas magic that has made The Rockettes such an iconic part of the holiday season.
The Rockettes were originally formed in St. Louis in 1925 by Russell Markert and known as the "Missouri Rockets." Little known fact: The Rockettes were actually inspired by a U.K. dance troupe known as the Tiller Girls and Markert had wanted an all-American version. He started the first group of dancers with "longer legs that could kick higher than the European counterparts," says Branam. "[Samuel] Roxy Rothafel saw them perform and fell in love with them, and invited what he called the Roxyettes to perform at Radio City's opening in December of 1932 [moving them from the Roxy Theatre when he left]."
When casting dancers at the auditions, Branam invokes Markert's inspiration to find the perfect fits and fill the coveted spots on the line. All Rockettes must fall within the height range of 5'6"-5'10.5" and be proficient in ballet, tap and jazz. "I put a little bit more emphasis on ballet just because I think it is a great foundation on which to do all the choreography," says Branam. "And I look for somebody that can take a note and a correction, and fix it because that is what we do all day long to make sure we all look alike. Everybody has to put their pinky finger where we tell them. Their chin has to be on the same level. I look at somebody with the willingness to take the corrections and put it into their bodies and do it. And somebody that loves dance. I love a confident young woman just out there doing what we ask her to do."
The highest standards of precision have been upheld since The Rockettes first took the stage decades ago. "We work very hard on what we call toeing the line," says Branam. "On the stage there are lines, and lines that are dashes, and we have numbers every two feet. When we link up our right hand is higher, our left hand is lower, and the right arm goes around the left arm.
"You have to really stand on your own two legs and use your core strength so that you can kick in one spot and not move because each Rockette has about two feet of space in which she works," says Branam. "You have to really make sure that you have the core strength to maintain that, and kick eye high every single time. And that's with your chin lifted." Of course, height varies down the line, but Branam and her predecessors thought of everything. "We always say we look at the exit sign in the first mezzanine. It's how we make it all look the same. We also start with the taller women in the center with the less tall women towards the end so it gives the illusion that we’re all one height, when we vary from 5'6" to 5'10.5.'"
While the kickline has evolved over the course of 90 years, some numbers such as "Living Nativity" and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" have remained the same since they were first performed about 80 years ago. To balance the traditional with new elements, the Spectacular features "GPS snowflakes that fly around the theater [in our finale 'Snow'] while The Rockettes are doing this amazing, almost balletic choreography. We have a video wall that has a lot of action in it at all times. We have a double-decker bus on stage. A lot of the numbers do end in a kickline," says Branam. "There's nothing like seeing 36 women in a line kicking together. It's pretty amazing."
The crowd favorite "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" is a very basic walk, but it has to be done exactly right every time. "Something that simple makes such a huge impact when you put 36 women in those costumes in formation. And it takes every single Rockette doing her job to make that number work," says Branam. "It's a real team effort because we say 'we are better together,' and it's really true. Their teamwork is unbelievable, and their willingness to work together and look like everybody else six hours a day, six days a week is pretty unbelievable."
For aspiring performers, and for those who dream of one day becoming a Rockette, Branam offers some words of wisdom. "If you're having fun onstage, the audience is having fun. If you can find your joy and exude that through the confines of the choreography, then you are really doing something. You are spreading the love of what you do, and making other people happy. I would say to somebody auditioning: Really listen to what the people at the front of the room are asking for, and try to really tune in to what you think they want, and what count they want things on. If they say they want a double pirouette, do a nice clean double — because that’s what they asked for."
Performances of the 2015 Radio City Christmas Spectacular, presented by Chase, runs Nov. 13, 2015-Jan. 3, 2016 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.