BWW Interviews: Abigail Gatlin - Behind the Scenes of the Rockettes
I recently had the pleasure to attend the Radio City Christmas Spectacular right here in New York City at Radio City Music Hall. And let me tell you, this show definitely put me in the Christmas spirit. If you have yet to see it this year, or even ever at all, take my word for it- GO. But, if you don't want to trust my opinion, perhaps one of the lovely Rockettes can convince you.
I got to sit down for coffee with current Rockettes dancer, Abigail Gatlin, 26, from small-town Cleveland, Tennessee, and learn what life is really like as a Rockette, what goes on behind the scenes, and what it's like transitioning from a small town to New York City and becoming a member of one of the most amazing dance ensembles in the world!
KD: Santa says in the show that the real magic of the Rockettes is that it keeps getting better and better every year. This was my third time seeing the show and I definitely have to agree. This had to be the best performance I've seen to date. So I'm curious to know when the first time was that you saw the Rockettes and when you first discovered the magic and fell in love with the show.
AG: I grew up watching the Thanksgiving Day parade with my mom, but didn't see the show until I was 16, in Nashville. I begged my parents to take me because I'd grown up watching every year and being so enamored with the Rockettes- their beauty and strength and how much talent they had... watching all the women work together and knowing that I wanted to do something like that. So I saw it for the first time in Nashville when I was 16, then saw the show again when I was living in New York when I was 19. I had taken a year off from college and was up here in New York as an intern at Broadway Dance Center. I was learning how to live here. It's a tough place. There's a reason they say, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." It's not the easiest city to live in. So one day I had an evening off and just decided that I was going to take myself to go see the Rockettes and I cried so much just watching. I was in the third mezzanine- I bought a really inexpensive ticket- and to be so far away and still see the magic and the beauty of it all. I just thought to myself, 'that's what I want to do. That right there.' I hadn't really discovered musical theatre because I wanted to be a company dancer or a ballerina growing up, but watching this and how strong the women were... and the teamwork really appealed to me and it appeals to a lot of us. It's not about the prima ballerina or the soloist or the principle dancer. It's about all of us working together, which I think is really cool. We all do the same number of kicks in the show. We're all working really hard. And I think it's really exciting and really cool that what we do that other dance jobs don't provide is that level of comrade that we're able to get because there's not the competition about who's going to get the solo or be the principle.
KD: How many girls are in the Rockettes currently?
AG: There are 40 in the cast and we have two casts in New York, so there are 80 women in New York. 36 are in the line and each line has 4 swings. A lot of really talented, hard-working women.
KD: And how many girls did you have to audition against to get that spot?
AG: I think every year at auditions there are a solid 500 or 600 women at each audition. And they hired 4 new women in New York my first year. So it's definitely an honor to join the ranks. We audition every year.
KD: How long have you been dancing?
AG: I started dancing when I was three, but getting serious- about twelve or thirteen. That's when I started asking my mom to take me outside of my small town and spend summers elsewhere and getting different teachers and exposing myself to different styles.
KD: The show features a lot of different styles of dancing. It's got ballet, tap, jazz, so which style did you train the most in growing up and which one did you find most useful in learning the difficult choreography?
AG: I think ballet definitely is where I had the most training growing up, and I think it's really helpful for having good lines in dancing. You instinctively know how to make a straight line in a diagonal because you know where your body is in space. I think ballet is really good for knowing how to use your legs, using your plie, making sure that all of that basic technique- straight legs, pointed toes, makes everything really easy so that those don't have to be something you have to think about, because there are so many details in the choreography. You don't want to have to think, 'oh, I need to pique onto a straight leg' because you have too many other things to think about. But jazz, too. At my internship here, I started training in musical theatre and getting a lot more jazz training, and I think the strength required in jazz helped a lot with this. Although, I have never needed so much strength for anything as I needed in this. I think you have to be so strong to execute the choreography correctly. I don't know that anything really prepares you for it, which is really cool, because it pushes you to the next step.
KD: So what is it like working with live animals or floating snow orbs? How does it make this show a different experience from other places you've danced with?
AG: It makes it really exciting! There are times when I'm in the nativity and you look around at how beautiful the scene is and you just think 'that's a camel! That's a real, live camel!' The sheep are led by people in the cast, some Rockettes, some ensemble members, the skaters... and we all take part in the nativity, which is a cool time that we all get to be on stage. And cool things like the 3D screen and the flying snowflakes... the production level at Radio City is always just the highest. These snowflakes float on their own with their own GPS coordinates that they follow every night. They fly up and go on their path and it's really exciting to see those out there while we're dancing.
KD: Did you find that distracting when you first starting dancing with the Rockettes? Dancing while all of these high level productions were going on around you?
AG: Oh, absolutely. But that's why we have a really in-depth tech process. You know the show inside and out before we move to the theatre. We have time- we do things quickly, but there's still plenty of time to adjust to the lights (the lights are so bright) and the stage is so big. My first year was so overwhelming. The first time you get on that stage and you're dancing at the front and there's so much empty space in front of you... and to know that you're still doing the same steps, you know exactly what you're doing. You just have to trust that you know your numbers and your depth and your details and not let it take over and take away your focus from what you're doing.
KD: This is your second year as a Rockette. Do you feel that there was more or less pressure coming back?
AG: I think it may be a little bit of both because your first year, you know it's going to be the hardest thing you've ever done, but you don't know what that entails. But coming back this year, I knew what would be required of me, so I had really high expectations of myself- that I was always going to take my notes immediately, clean things up as quickly as possible, and focus on things that I had trouble with last year so I wouldn't have trouble with them again this year. But you also have a really exciting level of confidence, because you know that you can do the job. You know you can because you've done it before. I did last year's season... 110 shows, so you know you can come back in and you know how rewarding it is, how rewarding all the hard work is.
KD: How much of the show was different this year? Are there a lot of differences year to year or is it a lot of the same familiar choreography?
AG: It's a lot of the same. There was a whole new number this year- Snow.
KD: Was the video game 3D number there last year?
AG: It was! I believe this is our third year doing video game. So it's still fairly new. But Snow was the completely brand new number. So, brand new finale- really exciting! So that was a lot of new things to learn, which is really cool to be a part of.
KD: Do they add a new number to the show every year?
AG: No. Not every year. They definitely are always updating things, keeping it fresh and updating details in choreography, which keeps it exciting for us and keeps us on our toes. We're always searching for the best, cleanest choreography, so details may change, but things like Wooden Soldiers never changes. Same choreography since 1933.
KD: Yeah! My favorite routine has always been Toy Soldiers. The fall at the end...
AG: It's so cool!
KD: Exactly! How much time and practice goes into that? How many hours, weeks, and months are you rehearsing for the Christmas Spectacular?
AG: Six hours a day, six days a week, starting in the middle of September. We rehearse for about a month before we move into tech, then we're adding in the stage and the lights and all of the other technical aspects in a very, very organized fashion. It blows my mind, all of the details. Before we do costumes, we do a shoe-through where we go through the whole show and we just change our shoes so we learn where our changes are. Because everything that happens backstage is as choreographed as what happens onstage. In our 78 second change...