Dances With Drones: The Rockettes Meld Tech With Tradition
Entertainment, Features, New York

Dances With Drones: The Rockettes Meld Tech With Tradition

December 4, 2018

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Katie Forss has wanted to be a Rockette ever since three sisters from her hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, who had joined the legendary Radio City troupe came to her high school to teach a dance class.

Radio City Rockette Katie Forss.

“I fell in love with the movement and the legacy of the Rockettes,” says Forss, now in her second season. She auditioned for them as soon as she finished high school, and made it in on her fourth try.

Now, she’s one of the two casts of 40 Rockettes—36 on stage and four “swings”—who alternate performances of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, doing three or four performances a day, six days a week, through Jan. 1.

On a typical day, she says, she has shows at 5, 8, and 10 p.m. She comes in about 2:30 to warm up, stretch, do her hair and makeup, and greet the other Rockettes. After the last show, they go over details of the night’s performance with their unit’s dance captain. 

They don’t rehearse during the season because they’ve already spent four weeks in basic rehearsals, starting in mid-September, and two weeks in tech rehearsals before the show opens in early November. “That’s my favorite part,” says Forss. “It’s when you see the true spectacle it is.”

By the time the season begins, says creative director Karen Keeler, “they’re so finely tuned” that all that is needed is “maintenance.”

Keeler, originally from Pennsylvania, spent 14 seasons as a Rockette, becoming one of the two dance captains and later assistant choreographer. But she became a Rockette out of many of the same feelings as Forss. “I grew up dancing all my life,” she says. She started in ballet, but fell in love with the clarity and precision of their routines, along with “the camaraderie.”

This year’s pageant includes a “Christmas Lights” addition to the traditional “Living Nativity” finale”: The North Star above the stage breaks up into particles of light, creating a “snow globe” around Santa Claus and the children, Keeler says. Then, an array of 100 lit-up drones “creates a bit of a curtain” that parts to reveal the Rockettes, who end the show dancing with the moving lights. 

“We’ve stayed true to the tradition, but also introducing new technology. It’s a really beautiful immersive experience for the audience.” — Katie Forss, Rockette

“We’ve stayed true to the tradition, but also introducing new technology,” she says.  “It’s a really beautiful immersive experience for the audience.”

Rockettes Creative Director Karen Keeler -Photo by Marion Curtis / StarPix.

Putting it together, she says, “took months.” First, the concept had to be developed with drone manufacturer Intel and fleshed out in collaboration with the Obscura Digital design studio. The drone team programmed them to move in ways that more or less follow the choreography, she says, and then the dancers had to learn their movements. 

Keeler describes designing the routines as “kind of like a big mathematical equation.” The dancers all have to be in specific positions for their movements to be precisely synchronized, she explains.

“We really focus on precision dancing,” says Forss. Her favorite parts of the show include tap-dancing to “The 12 Days of Christmas,” in which their shoes are miked so their taps can be heard throughout the house; the “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” part of the spectacular since it began in 1933; and “New York at Christmas,” in which they wear red and green costumes while riding through images of the city in a double-decker bus. The new “Christmas Lights” scene has joined them, she adds.

“It’s really amazing that we can dance with technology,” she says. “You’ll never find it anywhere else.”

After a year and a half in the city, Forss finds New Yorkers amazing people, both “driven and courteous.”

“I love being surrounded by the women here at Radio City,” she adds. “It really is an honor to be a Rockette.”

December 4, 2018

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