The Rockettes - Finely Tuned

Columbus is a Midwestern city with a Big Apple feel, so it is fitting that we can complete—as we have in recent years passed—our equation of holiday happiness with the addition of the The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. For more than three quarters of a century, the Radio City Rockettes have long been a legendary force in entertainment. Theirs is a rich history filled with endless dedication to precision dance that is unlike any other dance organization in the country. Now they are here to deliver the same wonder, joy and excitement that New Yorkers have felt for years.

This year marks the debut of the biggest production of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the world famous Rockettes, in the show’s 76-year history. A whole new Spectacular is in store for Columbus. Directed and choreographed by Linda Haberman, who conceived and directed last year’s critically acclaimed 75th celebratory show at Radio City Music Hall, the arena production was specifically designed to play in large venues scaled to capacities ranging from 7,000 – 12,000. This multi-faceted theatrical touring production will be completely constructed for an arena space, allowing the audience to experience the magic of The Christmas Spectacular at the grandest scale ever imagined by the Radio City creative team.

Hitting the road with twenty-six trucks and sixteen buses, the show will celebrate Christmas with dramatic arena lighting effects; breathtaking imagery; flying sequences; new musical compositions and an array of glamorous new costumes. The touring production will feature high-energy, tap-infused Rockette performance numbers, breathtaking sets that will surround the audience and special effects that will leave viewers in complete awe.

A hidden treat in this year’s performance is that three of the lead dancers are from Ohio. For our Holiday issue this year, we thought it’d be fun to photograph and interview a handful of dancers at a few Columbus hotspots to allow their holiday personas to shine. As expected, Anna Richardson (Westerville), Mary Capellas (Warren), Melissa Thomas (Parma) and Laura Danelski made holiday magic every step they took.


Mary, give us a little background on where you come from and what you’ve done lately.

Mary: I grew up in Warren, Ohio. I began dancing in when I was in kindergarten. My dance teacher was a Rockette and that’s how I was introduced to the Rockettes. I went to Ohio University and then the summer before my senior year I went to an audition. Afterwards, I had to call my mom for a plane ticket to Germany and a passport, so I went to Germany and toured with 42nd Street for a while, did a few cruise ships and then I lucked out at my Rockette audition and made it my first try. I’ve been dancing with them for the past ten years. This will be my 10th year.


After this season, what are some things coming up for you in 2009?

Mary: I teach dance to high school kids and teach Pilates to adults. I also tour and judge with dance competitions and teach master dance classes across the country.


How do you take the whole dance culture phenomenon that's taking place with hit shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars?

Mary: I love it. I think it is great to introduce the population to dance in a new and different way. I grew up watching old Jean Kelly movies and Fred Astaire and that’s how I really become involved in dance and through my dance teacher. I think it is great that it has become more accessible to a lot wider audience.

Laura: I feel thrilled about the role dance has taken on in media in the country and even throughout the world. Even in commercials these days you’ll see dance. I think the movie musicals that are accessible to kids now are amazing. Like Mary, I grew up watching Fred Astaire, Ben Crosby, Gene Kelly and all of their movies. I’m just excited that kids can see that today, but with a new twist. To speak to that, our show, The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, has evolved through the years and we still have the classic elements like “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and the “Living Nativity.” We have done those every year since 1933, but the show that is coming to Columbus has brought in new-age technology, different dance moves and different elements. The physicality of the show and just the sheer number of kicks that the audience will see… We do over 300. We have really amped it up, and we are just excited to bring such a great production across the country and to add to the dance that is out there.


Anna, how does it affect your future as a dancer?

Anna: I totally agree with everything that Mary and Laura have said. As a professional dancer, the jobs are pretty scared; there is not that much stability to it. But with the media and a lot more shows coming out, there is so much more opportunity for us as professional dancers, so it is really great to see America become a lot more familiar with what we do and how they have formed an appreciation for it. So when shows like The Radio City Christmas Spectacular come to town, they have a greater appreciation for it and they want to go out and see everything they get to see on TV all the time.


I think that with what’s coming out now on TV, the area between the art and the viewer is getting finer. People are getting the art of dance; they’re starting to understand Mia Michaels’ routines. For a long time, I think that people just stepped away. Do you think people are becoming more intelligent, or do you think people are becoming more aware of the art?

Mary: I think that because dance is more accessible the audiences are now able to see it and hear the critiques. I think the audience feels a little safer now and they start to understand and appreciate what goes behind it—especially in the medium of television where the audience can see the background. They can’t come to our rehearsal and they just see the end product, but now with these other things and that they see the rehearsal process, hopefully it opens the doors and explains a little bit more.


With the physicality and skill that goes into being a universal dancer, where do you place the dancer in the context of professional sports?

Anna: Radio City Rockettes are defiantly treated as athletes. We do up to four shows a day, 17 shows a week, and this year we will be traveling with an 18-city arena tour so that takes a lot of physical strength. We actually do up to 300 kicks in one show. We are treated as athletes. We have a great athletic training program. We have to really train our bodies before rehearsals. We have to do a lot of cardio, a lot of strength training, weight training and a lot of dance classes to be able to be ready, just as athletes have to be able to be ready before their first football game. Dance is an art, but it takes just as much strength as most athletic sports.


It says here “never under any circumstances let your hat hit the stage.” That’s a huge taboo for you guys, right?

Laura: Well, the hat hitting the stage, as professionals we just have to be prepared at any moment for anything that could happen on stage. Shoes have come off during performances. Some women have had to do a number on the ball of their foot until they could get off stage to get a new shoe. But we have been pretty good about making it work. We have amazing dressers backstage and amazing stage managers, so if something happens like that, most of the time they can get it fixed before anyone even knows it happens. We are pretty good about making it look seamless.


Mary, tell us how many changes of clothes you have in a single performance?

Mary: We have 8 different costume changes, one of which actually takes place on the stage.


Break down some of the more extraordinary developments this year and some of the newer scenes.

Mary: It is almost completely different than from when we were in Columbus last time. We start off with a reindeer number; from there Santa comes out and the Rockettes carry Santa on the sleigh. We do a great piece called the “12 Days of Christmas.” It’s an eight-minute tap number and we dance all the twelve days of Christmas. And, of course, we do The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. There is a new element that happens and we have some young boys in our show this year. There is an older brother and younger brother. The older is a little skeptical of Christmas so Santa introduces them to some magic of Christmas—one of which is that he makes some snow in the audience and then he gets them to fly. In that scene the magic is there.


Based on last year’s performance, I imagine there are things that happen this year that go above and beyond.

Mary: The LED screen is huge and it takes up the whole side of the stage. We also have two other stages that we are traveling with; they have elevators and turntables that rise and spin. The stage is actually like a rock concert, really. There is also a runway from the stage. The same people the have done The Rolling Stones, Justin Timberlake and Madonna designed our stage. With this stage, we can come onto stage from so many different places we just sort of pop up.


Are there any secrets?

Laura: This isn’t quite a secret, but the Rockettes actually don’t touch when we are kicking. It is so that way we don’t get pushed or accidentally push the women next to you, because that would throw off her kicking. So we dance as one unit and we appear to be touching but we are all performing the kicks independently on our own. It is an illusion that we are touching each other’s backs.


Do you guys all insure your legs?

Mary: You know we do. We also have a former Rockette that has gone to school and become an athletic trainer. She has developed a wonderful program. It helps us to condition before the season and she is there during the entire season. She also has a staff that will go on the road with us.


What do you think would be the first three words to come out of a 10-year-old’s mouth after the show?

Mary: Awesome. Awesome. Awesome!


Radio City Christmas Spectacular is set to play a two-day, four-show engagement at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday, December 9 and Wednesday, December 10. Show times will be 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. each day.