Rockettes still kicking after 82 years of festive glamour

A perennial favourite by the Rockettes is The Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers (above).
A perennial favourite by the Rockettes is The Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers (above).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

More than one million people watch the New York institution, which began in 1933, perform each year

NEW YORK • Kicking their legs and dancing in perfect unison since 1933, the Rockettes are an iconic New York Christmas institution watched by one million people each year at the biggest indoor theatre in the world.

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is performed up to five times a day from Nov 13 to Jan 3 at Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center, the United States' most popular Christmas destination.

It is a 90-minute show of music, ballet, ice skaters, dancing Santas, 3D cinema, fireworks and Christmas window displays that come to life with streamers and snowflakes bursting from the ceiling.

There is a Nutcracker with a teddy bear fairy godmother. Santa Claus flies through the clouds on a sleigh ride only to turn up in the audience, before whisking two children off to the North Pole.

The theatre is all art-deco opulence, with thick carpets, 6,000 silky smooth seats and an enormous stage that oozes Golden Age glamour, where some of the country's greatest entertainers have performed.

Together with the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the Rockettes are a cornerstone of the winter holiday season, with New York expected to welcome 5.3 million visitors.

"I was taken by my family to see the show when I was a little girl and I know, looking out to the audience, that repeat families make it part of their holiday tradition too," says Ms Samantha Beary Burns, a Rockette for seven years.

"You kind of pinch yourself, is this really my life?" she says.

"Coming to New York at Christmas, it is truly an experience that no one should miss."

One number, The Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers, which sees 36 dancers collapse like dominos, has been performed every year since 1933 with the same choreography and costumes.

"It's an audience favourite," says Ms Julie Branam, the first Rockette to direct and choreograph the Christmas Spectacular.

The other constant is a living nativity scene that includes three camels, a clutch of sheep and a donkey, as shepherds and wise men pay homage to Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. The animals live in the building and every day between 5 and 6am, the camels are taken for a stroll around Rockefeller Center, Ms Branam said.

"The show is based on tradition, which is great, but every year, we're trying to bring in new elements," she adds.

"We're always trying to think of ways to keep the show fresh."

The Rockettes have two casts of 40 dancers, but put only 36 dancers on stage for each number.

The minimum age is 18 and each April, the performers have to re-audition to keep their place.

They rehearse six hours a day, six days a week for six weeks. Once the show opens, each woman performs four shows a day, six days a week.

The dancers range in height from 1.67 to 1.78m, with the tallest women performing in the middle of the stage and everyone else spreading out gradually to create the illusion that they are all the same height.

"They make it look so easy when it is so difficult," says Ms Branam. "They are so highly trained, it really is every form of dance and they're athletes on top of it."

During the performance, there are eight costume changes.

The fastest allows the dancers only 78 seconds to get out of their soldier costumes into little dresses, white fur hats and fur-trimmed coats.

Ms Burns said her favourite number is The 12 Days Of Christmas, in which the dancers portray the various objects from the famous holiday song.

"It shows our personalities," she explains.

"It really shows our athleticism as professional dancers and I think it highlights the history and the iconography, but it's still contemporary."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'Rockettes still kicking after 82 years of festive glamour'. Print Edition | Subscribe