On a humid summer day in midtown Manhattan, construction goes on outside the Church of St. Paul the Apostle. Inside, another type of building goes on: In separate basement studios, two groups of 40 dancers focus their attention on their instructors. It's the Rockettes' summer intensive, a rare chance for students to work with professional Rockettes, not to mention Julie Branam, their director and choreographer.
Rockette Bailey Callahan demonstrates in front of one group. Hers is a classic Rockette story. She attended their intensive every summer from 2009 to 2011; being a Rockette was her dream. Then, in 2012, she was asked to attend the program's invitational week. At the end, she received her Rockette contract.
The invitational week has proved a path to the Radio City stage for more than a few Rockettes. Around 1,200 women ages 14 and up audition each year for the summer intensive. Up to 640 dancers are placed in one of the program's seven repeating weeks, or in the invitational week. That week amps up the intensive's already rigorous pace and is geared toward semi-professional and professional dancers.
Branam, a former Rockette herself, looks for several elements in all summer intensive students. "We want a strong ballet foundation and the ability to handle many styles. I'm also watching for willingness to take in details. You may want to kick as high as you can and reach your face. But can you do what I ask—kick just to eyeline as the Rockettes do? We need dancers who can be specific and take directions, even if they are used to doing it differently."
For the invitational week, Branam is looking for students with more polish. "Are you comfortable in the room?" she asks. "Are you listening to what I'm saying? Are you executing the signature Rockettes strong arms instead of letting them float?"
Branam notes that neither the invitational week nor the regular intensive is an audition for the troupe, but they can be a great place to demonstrate skill and readiness.
Each intensive week is run like Rockettes rehearsals, working for 80 minutes at a time, then resting for 10, plus an hour for lunch. Mornings start at 9:30 am with a review of the previous day's choreography, followed by a Rockette-led group warm-up consisting of planks, strength and core work mixed with jazz-flavored sequences.
"We did a tap drawback section across the floor that dancers then used in the 42nd Street number," explains Branam. "We're always working on integrating technique."
Students spend the rest of the day on choreography, with pieces used as workshops for Rockette trademarks: "muscled" arms, whiplash footwork, precise torso angles, and, of course, those kicks.
By Wednesday, students have all the choreography they'll perform at their showcase on Friday. A workshop with the Rockettes' athletic trainer on body care, injuries and maintenance, a Q&A with the Rockette teachers, and a "crazy legging day" round out the week's activities.
The invitational week has a similar structure, but greater challenges. This year, that included learning "Sleigh Ride," a number featuring the Rockettes as Santa's reindeer. "It's super-stylized and difficult," says Branam. "It has the most details: tilt of the head, where antlers are, where elbows are."
All the choreography the invitational students learn is taught much faster, and some numbers include far more kicks in longer phrases of kicklines, as well as more changes in formation and weight shifts.
During the week, Branam may glean what she needs to make an offer. As it happened, this past summer three dancers proved they were up to all the requirements, and Branam offered them contracts.
All the students, whether in the invitational or the intensive weeks, learn about Rockette teamwork. "Togetherness is an essential part of being a Rockette," says Katelyn Gaffney, a Rockette instructor who also attended summer intensives before finally earning her contract. "It's dancing together, breathing together, having fun together. Most students aren't used to dancing so closely, just two feet apart. It's hard to dance full-out but stay contained. But practicing how to stay together, how to be sharp but not hold back, that's so special."