Face to Face: Linda Haberman

Each holiday season, millions of people flock to New York City hoping to catch the Radio City Christmas Spectacular—the show that has been dazzling theatergoers of all ages since 1933. And audiences have been enjoying an increased stage presence by the Rockettes, after director and choreographer Linda Haberman revamped the singing and dancing extravaganza in 2007 for the show’s 75th anniversary. They dance more than ever before, not only in their trademark precision kicklines, but in challenging and visually impressive choreography. Last year, Haberman created an arena production, designed for large-scale venues seating up to 12,000 people, that traveled to 18 cities across North America. The performance was so successful it is now traveling to 36 cities.

Though the arena production is based on the Radio City Music Hall show, the size and scope are much larger, with 22 trucks and nine buses moving the elaborate sets. There are complex special effects, new songs and costumes (including a more lyrical grand finale, “Let Christmas Shine,” with costumes adorned in 3,000 Swarovski crystals), and a giant LED projection screen that journeys through wintry landscapes, Times Square and Santa’s workshop. At one point, snow even falls on patrons, as Santa himself flies over.

Even though Haberman was never a Rockette herself, the School of American Ballet–trained dancer is uniquely qualified to lead the leggy ladies. After finding her calling on the Great White Way as the youngest cast member in Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, she assisted Fosse in Big Deal and began working with the Rockettes in 1990 as then director Scott Salmon’s assistant. By 1993, she was choreographing and directing touring productions of the classic Christmas Spectacular. In the midst of rehearsals, Haberman took a break to chat with DT about the upcoming season.

Dance Teacher: What was your thought process when beginning to adapt the show for arenas?
Linda Haberman: I wanted a fresh approach and vision. I wanted to feature the Rockettes more in terms of big dance numbers that were not just about formation but also about dancing. The arena show is the same show creatively. It’s just staged differently to suit the space.

DT: Was it more challenging than choreographing for a theater setting?
LH: Yes, you have to be much more aware of how things look from the side and from above. I bring movement out into the auditorium more. The choreography faces different directions, so it’s not all straight front.

DT: It’s exciting that in a recession, the arena production is touring to more cities this year. What has made it such a success?  
LH: It’s amazing-looking in terms of scale and size and the amount of scenery. You just don’t get a touring show that looks like this. People have never seen anything like it.

DT: You are known to be strict, and when I think about those perfect kicklines I can see why that would come in handy. Would you agree, and is that how you get all 36 Rockettes onstage to dance with such exacting precision?
LH: I say that is fairly accurate! We have eight-hour days in the studio for four weeks. Once we go to the theater, we do 10-hour days. It’s very intense. We work the most minute details that in another setting people might not even notice. We spend hours on the tiniest things. There’s a pride in being a Rockette, and they are very proud of the show and their role in it. So it makes my life easier because they want to be good, and they work so hard.

DT: How do you find inspiration to choreograph a holiday show each year? Do you ever feel burned out?
LH: Oddly enough, I don’t. When you have to stay in the realm of Christmas, it makes your life easier as a creator because you know the confines. Luckily, I love the holidays. The challenge is coming up with things I haven’t done yet.

DT: Did working with Fosse have any impact on your creative development?
LH: Absolutely. He was also very detail-oriented and would spend a lot of time on a finger move or an eye move or a head nod.

DT: Any advice to pass on to fellow teachers and choreographers?
LH: Whatever your ideas are, don’t be afraid. We question ourselves as creative people, but you have to go for it and be willing to make big mistakes. DT

Kristin Lewis is a classically trained ballerina and the former managing editor of Dance Spirit. She is also a regular contributor to Dance Magazine and Pointe.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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