You'll Never Guess Which Dancers Made Their Stage Debut as a Radio City Clara
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
The girls selected have to perform anywhere from one to three shows per day (an average of six shows per week and 66 for the entire season). Not to mention braving Radio City Music Hall's 6,000-seat theater or, in previous years, multicity tours alongside the world-famous Radio City Rockettes. It comes as no surprise that many of these prodigies go on to successful dance careers.
Dance Magazine spoke with five former Claras about their time in the Christmas Spectacular and the lessons they learned along the way.
Catherine Hurlin, American Ballet Theatre soloist
Left: Hurlin with fellow Radio City Clara Allie Parsons. Right: Hurlin in ABT's Nutcracker, photo by Gene Schiavone.
Years as Clara at Radio City: 2007, 2008, 2009
Ages: 11, 12, 13
Location: Radio City Music Hall
Onstage preparation: "My warm-up was 'The 12 Days of Christmas,' the number right before my part. I would do the entire dance with the Rockettes in the wings. There was this one moment where they would look in the wings and I would jump up and down and wave my hands, saying 'You're doing a good job! Keep going.' "
Souvenir: "I still have a pair of pointe shoes from the show, and they're crazy-looking. They're painted bubble-gum pink because that was the look of the costume. And the stage does not have marley on it, so they had to put on rubber tips. So it's this little, itty-bitty shoe, but the block is bright pink, with this big, fat rubber piece on the top."
Takeaways for professional life: "I performed so much that I got used to the stage, and because it's such a big stage you have to project a big smile. Like air-biting: a real cheeseball of a smile in order for the people in the back to see it."
Juliet Doherty, freelance ballet dancer and actress
Left: Doherty performing as Clara, photo by Gene Schiavone. Right: Doherty performing today
Years as Clara: 2009, 2010, 2011
Ages: 12, 13, 14
Location: Seattle-Pittsburgh and Florida-Texas tours, Radio City Music Hall
Biggest challenge: "Finger pirouettes with the bear. He's in one of those big heads that has very little vision out of the mouth. There's a lot more distance you have to create so you don't end up whacking the bear on the nose. And at the end we had to do a shoulder sit, so that was always a challenge."
On tour vs. performing at Radio City Music Hall: "The first year on tour my mom came with me. I got really close with the cast because we all stayed in the same hotel and most of the time were in one place for a month. But New York City was my favorite theater-wise, because we got to be on a stage practically the size of a football field!"
Favorite number: "They don't do it anymore, but it was called 'Let Christmas Shine.' It was at the end of the show, and the Rockettes were dressed in these Swarovski-encrusted costumes. The lyrics we sang went "Shine out the light of love. Shine out the light of joy." It's a mantra I've carried with me ever since."
Katelyn Gaffney, Rockette
Left: Gaffney as Clara, photo by Carl SCheffel/MSG Photos. Right: Gaffney in Rockette rehearsal today. Photos courtesy MSG
Year as Clara: 2003
Location: Branson, Missouri, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, tour
Biggest challenge: "Learning the stage was very difficult for me, because the stages were so massive. There are lines and numbers and a particular spot for you to be in at every single point in time. I feel like growing up as dancers a lot of the time we're trained to be soloists, but as Clara, you really are part of the production. There's a time and a place for every single movement."
Favorite number as Clara: "The Nutcracker scene. And that's actually a scene that's still in the Christmas Spectacular now. It's so fun. The teddy bears come to life. It's our own version of the traditional Nutcracker."
Best then-and-now moment: "I get a little teary-eyed every single year when the Claras enter for the first time. You can see their faces light up when they see us. I remember that my whole heart just exploded with joy when I saw the Rockettes for that first time in rehearsal."
Angelica Generosa, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist
Left: Generosa as Clara. Right: Generosa as Sugar Plum at PNB, photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB.
Year as Clara: 2005
Location: Radio City Music Hall
Major Radio City vs. ballet Nutcracker difference: "The production is a lot different now from when I did it back in the day. The Clara had to pretend sing in a little elf scene. They had a voiceover for us, but we did have a mic just in case the voice didn't work out. So I did have to rehearse to sing, but I never had to sing live."
Souvenir: "I still have a Nutcracker that I bought from the souvenir shop and I made all the Rockettes sign it!"
Takeaways for professional life: "When I danced it we had to do fouetté turns. And I remember practicing every single day and making sure I got it. It disciplined me for anything that was hard and taught me to overcome that fear. Now, doing Sugar Plum Fairy is way harder, because you have to carry the whole performance. As Clara it was just eight minutes. I had no idea what pacing meant."
Whitney Jensen, Norwegian National Ballet principal
Left: With fellow Clara Meghan Grace Hinkis. Right: Jensen performing today, photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Years as Clara: 2003, 2004
Ages: 11, 12
Location: Radio City Music Hall
Major Radio City vs. ballet Nutcracker difference: "At Radio City the Nutcracker is just a suite, a short, condensed version of the story with oversized characters. There are large teddy bears dressed as ballerinas in pointe shoes!"
Takeaways for professional life: "It set me up for an incredibly independent career. At age 11, I learned the discipline of homeschooling. I also learned what it's like to work as a professional, understanding dancer responsibilities and rights, taking direction on a massive stage, learning how to do tech rehearsals, conquering stage fright if I had to sing. I also learned how to perform when you don't feel like it!"
Favorite onstage memory: "Before my first performance, preparing for my entrance as Clara, I had a flashback to a few years earlier, sitting in the audience at Radio City watching the Christmas Spectacular and telling myself 'I want to be that girl!' And all of the sudden that dream was real. For me, at 11, it was the biggest thing in the world."
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
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A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.