Russell Markert

Father of Radio City's Rockettes

Russell Markert and the Rockettes in 1946

Since 1933, theatergoers of all ages have been dazzled by the Radio City Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular. These audiences have choreographer Russell Markert (1899–1990) to thank for the beloved holiday production.

For 39 years, Markert’s penchant for uniformity—the bedrock of his choreographic vision—happily consumed his life. It led him to create musically diverse and visually stunning shows that transformed the Rockettes into dance icons and set the model for how to choreograph on gargantuan stages. The high-kicking, leggy ladies took center stage in his sexy, sharp and short vaudevillian pieces, where miraculously appearing elevators, turning stages, huge set pieces and gorgeous costumes fêted their presence. Through the Rockettes, Markert offered a dancing correlative to American optimism, and his ability to project a highly skilled, innovative and uncomplicated America through the spirited unison of 36 young women was masterful.

The Jersey City, New Jersey, native had no relationship to show business, but he showed signs of being from that world by age 3. On a daytrip to the beach, Markert slipped away from his mother and was found dancing alongside a jazz band. “When you hear the music, you have to dance,” he said to his frantic mother. At home Markert created soft-shoe numbers and designed a floor-length tutu (made out of torn newspapers) for his sister. Around his 14th birthday, his parents separated. Apart from Army duty in France during World War I, where he briefly performed in military theatricals, he lived the rest of his life with his mother and sister.

Upon leaving the Army, he pursued a career in finance with the goal of securing his family’s financial stability. But the theater bug bit him again. Markert took his first dance and acrobatic classes with a local Brooklyn teacher named Thelma Entwhistle, who said, “My God, you’re too much for me,” in response to his nascent talent. Then in 1922 he saw the Ziegfeld Follies. Markert found the Follies short and lacking in choreographic versatility, but he marveled at their “wondrous precision” and vowed to one day “get 16 American girls—taller—kicking higher and doing lots of tap dancing.” And in just a few years, he got his chance.

After dancing on Broadway, serving as dance director assistant for Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1923) and choreographing an all-female show for the Cotton Club in 1924, Markert formed the Missouri Rockets, a Ziegfeld Follies–style group, in St. Louis. This female dance troupe later relocated to NYC and underwent two name changes (the American Rockets and Roxyettes), before permanently moving into the new 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center in 1932. Two years later, the leggy ladies became forever known as the Rockettes.

In the early years, Markert made a new show three or four times a month. The dancers performed four times a day. Rehearsals began at 7:00 a.m. sharp, and the pace was relentless. Nevertheless he became known for his paternal instincts, treating “his girls” like daughters. Once accepted into the troupe, the young women earned a good living and were given chaperoned dormitory lodging catty-corner to the seven-story theater. Markert encouraged them to seek out his advice and he made them into American success stories. Because his goal was visual uniformity and his style required shoulder-to-shoulder teamwork, the dancers formed “a unique sisterhood,” says former Rockette Corliss Whitney. There was absolutely no star system.

By the time Markert retired in 1971, he had trained 3,000 dancers and won the Grand Prix with the Rockettes at the 1937 Paris Exposition. But Radio City had been losing money since the 1960s, making cuts to its orchestra, ballet troupe and a number of performances, and an aging Markert could no longer produce the grand spectacles he had grown accustomed to. His bequest was a formula that revolutionized American theatrical dance and his Christmas Spectacular has become a holiday family entertainment tradition, still performed at Radio City and across the United States. DT

 

Freelance writer Rachel Straus is based in New York City. She holds degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Photo: by Cosmo Sileo, N.Y., courtesy of Madison Square Garden Entertainment

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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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