BWW Interview: Director/Choreographer Julie Branam Talks ROCKETTES and the CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR
Julie Branam has the distinction of being the first Rockette ever to have directed and choreographed the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in New York City. For the past 28 years, Julie has had a successful career performing as a Rockette as well as holding other various positions at the Music Hall. She's also worked as a swing, dance captain and assistant, which led to her becoming director of several of the Radio City touring shows. She made her debut directing and choreographing the Christmas Spectacular at the Music Hall in 2014.
Julie was raised in West Des Moines, Iowa where she studied dance and took a serious interest in ballet when she was twelve. She's a self-proclaimed "bunhead" who danced with the Des Moines Ballet Company in her teens where she knew she wanted to make dance her career. She recalls her mom telling her to "find something you love to do, and figure out a way to get paid for it." On the day of her first visit to NYC she went to see a performance at Radio City featuring the Rockettes with her director of the Ballet Company. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she would ever be a Rockette. Little did she know that a few years later her life would change forever when she became a member of the Radio City family where she continues to thrive to this day.
I spoke with Julie about her journey with Radio City Music Hall.
What were your aspirations when you first moved to New York?
"Before I left Iowa I told my parents to save the college tuition money and buy me a new pair of pointe shoes! I really just wanted to dance and my parents were very supportive. I auditioned for everything I could when I arrived. I had several survival jobs and was lucky to get some good modeling jobs. I eventually did summer stock, nightclub shows, and industrials."
Can you tell me about your audition for the Rockettes?
"The first time I auditioned they were doing a summer show and were hiring some additional Rockettes. I remember bombing out in the tap portion of the audition because I wasn't really a tapper. We also had to do tour jetes across the floor, and I received applause for doing them. They told me that they didn't have a spot for me as a Rockette in the show, but they would like me to audition as a dancer. I wasn't able to come back for that call as I had a modeling job at the time. Luckily for me, they kept me on file, and a year later they called me in to audition for a swing position for the Rockettes that I got."
They must have really liked your dancing to hire you as a swing. That can be a demanding position.
"They were hiring additional swings so I figured I'd only have to learn 6 parts. To my surprise they told me I'd have to be responsible for all 36 spots! It was crazy to think about that but it's actually a very mathematical process. I was the tallest swing at 5'8 so I always got to go into the tallest spot. Although I knew all 36 parts I rarely had to venture past the center 12 positions."
How is dancing the Rockette choreography different than other styles of dance?
"It can be a bit restrictive because each Rockette has about 2 feet of space to dance within, when we are in a line. The path of your arm is very specific and if you miss that path you'll end up hitting someone. You really have to be contained, yet dance at your fullest. There are times when we are very free, but on that stage we're very aware about much we're traveling. It's an interesting and fascinating concept."
At what point after becoming a Rockette were you asked to be an assistant?
"After doing the Christmas show for six years I was asked to go on the road to do the first show in Branson, Missouri. They offered me a position as dance captain where I'd also be responsible for staging some of the numbers. Since I was a swing in New York they let me set "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" because I knew all of the parts. It really takes a team effort to get that one done. The number is deceivingly hard to perform even though it's just walking."
When did you actually direct your first show?
"It was about 4 years later when they were doing Christmas Across America. They had several shows in different cities and I was hired to direct the show in Myrtle Beach. I felt very fortunate as I'd always been a Rockette, but now I was able to work with the entire ensemble, including Santa. It was a very rewarding experience."
How do you create your choreography for the Rockettes?
"When I'm choreographing a new number I imagine the concept first, and then plot it all out. I think of what formations I can come up with for 36 dancers and usually do the actual steps last.
I'm also a big believer that a line of women that like one another and get along, will give you a better product in the end. It really takes everyone working together to make it work. You're dancing so closely to each other and you rely on one another so trust is key. "We're better together" is what we always say."
How different are auditions for the Rockettes today than they were for you?
"The bar has been raised and they are much more rigorous. You have to be proficient in all types of dance, but having a strong ballet foundation will take you further. I give combinations in jazz, tap, turns and kicks on the first day. For the callback the next day I'll add on to some of those to see how the dancers retain and execute the work. They have to be willing to look like everyone else and do it over and over to get it right. They have to be prepared to rehearse and drill for 6 hours a day for six weeks."
As director, what type of dancer do you look for?
"I look for someone who is eager, smart, listens and has nice ballet technique. They certainly have to have some stretch in the legs for our eye-high kicks that we do in a parallel position, and also be able to tap. Being able to think on the spot also goes a long way with me. Even if someone may not do a step correctly, but I can see that they can take a correction, I'll be much more receptive to them. Lastly, I look for dancers who dance with confidence and show a love for what they do."
I know that you've recently started rehearsals for the Christmas Spectacular. How's it going?
"It's going great! As of today our entire cast has arrived and we're all in rehearsals. We have a total of four weeks to get the show up so we'll be working non-stop until then."
Do you have many new Rockettes or dancers this year?
"I actually have 17 new Rockettes that I've added to the New York line this season. We also have a lot of new dancers and kids in the show."
How are the new cast members put into the show?
"It can be a bit shocking to them at first as we work fast and in a very specific way. Within a couple of days they know what is expected of them and everyone is on the same page. Once they learn a song, they're up on their feet within the hour, and we're staging it. After they've learned it they have to write down their numbers, lines, and staging, as we may not see it again for 4 or 5 days. We need to get all the information out to them as quickly as possible and then we'll come back to clean it.
I take great pride in the work I do, as do the Rockettes, in producing a great product and being the best we can be. That type of energy is contagious and the entire cast wants to work hard and feel good about what they're doing."
Have there been any changes since last year's show?
"Well, we're always trying new technological things. We have a different decking on the stage this year so we're bringing back some of the staging for our popular number, "Here Comes Santa Claus." That's the number that has multiplying Santa's with 48 people in it. The staging has been redone and we're doing it on a giant turntable so that should really be fun.
We'll still be doing the "Rag Dolls" number that was reintroduced last year with new costumes and new sets. It's such a crowd pleaser and also a personal favorite of mine. Aside from the new additions, we still have the traditional favorites, "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and "The Living Nativity."
Thank you, Julie. It sure seems that you have a love for what you do at the Music Hall!
"I'd never have been doing this for 28 years if I didn't absolutely love it. I know that I found my niche and I can't imagine doing anything else. There are always new challenges and I try to find new ways to teach and approach the choreography to keep it fresh. I strive to nurture a positive working environment during rehearsals and keeping a sense of humor never hurts either."
For more information on the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which this year runs November 13 - January 3, please visit: radiocitychristmas.com
You can also get information on all the Rockette programs at rockettes.com