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."
New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.
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As always, Forsythe's choreography is a layered experience, both kinetic and intellectual. This North American premiere prompted many thoughts, which I whittled down to seven.