Gabrielle Hamilton in John Heginbotham's dream ballet from Oklahoma! Photo by Little Fang Photo, Courtesy DKC/O&M

Gabrielle Hamilton on Starring in Oklahoma!'s Dream Ballet—and Her Delightfully Bizarre Pre-Show Ritual

The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!

We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.



How She Booked the Show

Hamilton met Heginbotham when he cast her in a piece at Point Park during her senior year, and he later invited her to audition for Oklahoma!, though she couldn't make it. "I wasn't able to attend the first two due to school scheduling," she says. Thankfully, he got back in touch with her after graduation, and she knew she couldn't miss out again. "I was choreographing a piece in Pittsburgh, but I took the first bus back to New York City to audition." She joined the cast of Oklahoma! for its run at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn and stayed on board when it came to Broadway.

How College Prepped Her for 8 Shows a Week

Hamilton is frank when asked about transitioning from college student to Broadway performer: "To be completely honest, my body was used to it already—which I'm so happy about because this can be exhausting." At Point Park, it wasn't unusual for her to start dancing at 8 am and not finish her day until 10:30 pm.

About That Chili

Just as in the St. Ann's Warehouse production, Oklahoma!'s Broadway audience is treated to vegetarian chili and cornbread during intermission. "I think the chili plays on the senses with the audience members," says Hamilton. "Especially in the dream ballet, a lot of your senses are being toyed with, so it's the start of the adventure you're about to take."

The Game She Plays Before Stepping Onstage

"John and I created this rhyming game that we always play backstage. We'll be walking past each other, and it starts off by us saying, 'Possum toss. Applesauce. Rabbit floss,' and then we just continue to rhyme random things."

But that's only part of her über-specific pre-show ritual, which includes drinking Peach Tranquilty tea from Starbucks, praying and meditating during her warm up, and listening to "Disaster Time," a techno song by Stardust, to get her pumped up.

On Tackling the Iconic Dream Ballet

For about 13 minutes following intermission, a barefoot Hamilton takes the stage in a sequined T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "Dream Baby Dream." This isn't your grandmother's dream ballet—that is, the 1943 Agnes de Mille original—but more of a fever-dream ballet courtesy Heginbotham's downtown sensibility.

"I still can't wrap my head around the fact that I have this opportunity to perform such an iconic ballet. And also being an African-American woman doing this role," she says. "In history classes, I watched the dream ballet as part of our curriculum, but I never would have guessed that I would have this opportunity to do this."

"John definitely took some motifs from the original," says Hamilton, "but I think he approached this in a very non-literal way. There's a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to our version of the dream ballet, and it's just one person collectively performing the emotions of everyone in the space."

The cast of Oklahoma! in a dance scene, onstage with the show's band.

The cast of Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo, Courtesy DKC/O&M

On the Production's In-Your-Face Realness

"It taps into a lot of emotions and problems within the world now," says Hamilton. "There's no mask over the truth. The truth is in your face"—whether that's Curly's suggestion that Jud should commit suicide, or a sexually disturbing, yet purposely ambiguous, scene with Jud and Laurey alone in the dark. "It is your duty as the audience member—and as a human being—to feel and to understand what is going on. How do you react to it and how do you walk away from it? That's the beauty in it."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021