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!
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."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.