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."

Latest Posts


Getty Images

What Is Your Definition of Success? 10 Dance Artists & Leaders Weigh in


Success is sharing.

Arun Kumar, courtesy Ramaswamy

"As a dancer and choreographer of a form that is not widely known, sharing it with communities all over the country feels like a major success. The fact that audiences are eager and receptive to hear and see what I feel are universal human messages, but through my point of view, is incredibly rewarding.

"I also feel success in the relationships I've maintained. I create with my mother and sister—the three of us perform together and have grown our partnership over the years. My mentor in India, Alarmél Valli, has been my teacher for over three decades. Every day that I am accepted as her student I feel humbled." —Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company

Success is staying passionate.

Courtesy Steffanina

"My first goal was to pay my bills using only dance. No side jobs. Once I got to that point, I felt like I'd 'made it.'

"When I was starting out, it was a big deal to me when record labels would repost a video of mine. It's easy to get caught up in the numbers. But I've realized the most important thing is maintaining your passion for what you're doing. If it starts to be about the views, you will fall out of love with dance. Keep the passion first and then figure out your marketing." —Matt Steffanina, Los Angeles–based dancer and choreographer

Success is serving others.

Courtesy Hibah

"It was more about self-fulfillment as a youngster, and I think as I've matured, I look to see who I can help, whether I'm inspiring someone who sees me onstage or teaching an up-and-coming dancer or sharing my knowledge with my 'Seasoned Saints'—a group of women probably about 60 and over whom I teach yoga to. Of course, I want to continue to be fulfilled artistically. Every artist feeds off of having opportunities to thrive. But now I realize that what I do—how I maintain my body, my craft, my integrity, my diligence—is in fact serving the younger dancer or serving an elder who is looking to find strength and move." —Bahiyah Hibah, Broadway performer

Success if finding balance.

Christian Savini, Courtesy Pam Tanowitz Dance

"It was my dream job once I finally got hired at Cunningham. The financial burden was eased greatly by having that security, and it also helped me improve as a dancer because I had more resources. I was able to consistently go to an Alexander teacher and swim at the Y. I could afford to go to more yoga classes.

"Now, as a freelancer, being successful is having a family, having a healthy relationship and being able to also have a career. I'm at a place where I still love performing, but I also split my time with rehearsal directing and coaching. I feel successful when I can find balance in all of those things, and also financially sustain a life in New York with a child." —Melissa Toogood, freelance modern dancer and coach

Success is feeling proud—and passing it along.

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Anderson

"To me, success has nothing to do with how the public feels. It has nothing to do with applause. It has nothing to do with how much I got paid. It has to do with being proud of the work. As a dancer, every time I got to do a new role and I made it through, it was a little success.

"Now my success has nothing to do with how I feel. I work at Houston Ballet in education and community engagement, so my success is in how students understand what I'm teaching them, and seeing them grow." —Lauren Anderson, former principal dancer with Houston Ballet

Success is dedication and openness.

Stephanie Diani, Courtesy Gibney

"If there was a moment of success, it's probably in the future because I see my career as one of evolution. Certainly, along the way there were milestones—a piece of choreography that really resonated or a space that opened that was particularly functional or unique in its aesthetics. But I think our field is about moving forward one step at a time in increments—constant improvement, iterative growth.

"I think that success is having a deeply rooted, relentless dedication to what you believe in—dedication that can weather difficulties, indecision, rejection. That, coupled with a kind of agility and openness to change at any moment, to redefine and even reinvent yourself. I think those things combined, whatever the outcome, to me defines success." —Gina Gibney, founder, CEO and artistic director of Gibney

Success is continuing to learn.

John Deane, Courtesy Capucilli

"Whether it's delving into the archetypes of a Graham role, a day of teaching or the months required for staging a work, I think that delving voraciously into colorful expression in a truthful way that touches people is what fills me. These experiences can't really be measured by words of success, at least not in my book, but they become a reservoir of knowledge. To say 'I made it!' is too definitive. If you've 'made it,' your journey is over. It should constantly be evolving. I take great pride in knowing that I am continuing to learn." —Terese Capucilli, artistic director laureate with Martha Graham Dance Company

Success is making the most of opportunities.

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

"When I got promoted to principal, after 10 years of being a soloist, I really felt that I had accomplished something. And then, all of a sudden, I was thrown into premieres of some of the hardest full-length ballets, with no stage rehearsals, sometimes no company rehearsals, and I realized that actually it doesn't matter what rank you are. It matters what you do with what you've been given. For me, it was going onstage and being able to have enough confidence that I could forget about myself when I was performing, that I could actually get into the character and make the role my own no matter what." —Sarah Lane, American Ballet Theatre principal

Success is investing in others.

Noah Stern Weber, Courtesy Alexander

"I've found that as soon as you get to one peak, you look around and there are other peaks to climb. It's not dissatisfaction, but the creative impulse to continue.

"One of the measures of success I think about as an advocate and producer is that Chicago Human Rhythm Project has managed to invest millions in artist fees and marketing for American tap dancers who weren't being paid by mainstream dance presenters until recently. We've helped to build capacity for our field. That will last beyond me." —Lane Alexander, co-founder and director of Chicago Human Rhythm Project

Success is less important than desire.

Peter Graham, Courtesy Noche Flamenca

"Sometimes I don't even know what I'm looking for. It's like success has kind of been thrown out the window and it's more the feeling of, as if, I was thirsty and I needed to drink. During my career, or during my life, I've found different roads to try to calm that thirst, satisfy that thirst. But the thirst always exists. An artist is always searching. You can't look for success as an artist. For me, the only thing is a capacity to quench my thirst." —Soledad Barrio, star of Noche Flamenca

(Translated from Spanish by her husband and artistic director, Martín Santangelo)