Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Rundown on Dancing w/ David Byrne

Last weekend was just amazing.

When I finished the Radio City Christmas Spectacular on December 30, I cried during the last curtain call (and I NEVER cry!). The thought of not having that incredible view from that gigantic stage for at least a year (or potentially never again) was terrifying. Little did I know I'd be back so soon!

The prospect of dancing in David Byrne's sold out concert at Radio City as part of his world tour was exciting to me for all the wrong reasons, haha. Though I shouldn't admit it, I wasn't really familiar with his music by name before getting involved. I was just thrilled to have the chance to get backstage - onstage - again. And it turned out to be way more fun than expected!

When I found out they were looking for dancers, I was only told it would be a kick line to "Burning Down the House." The person who asked me to do it also invited several actual Rockettes to do it at the same time (note: I was in the ensemble of the Christmas Show, not a Rockette. I'm too short...) so I was anticipating a line of actual Rockettes with little 5 foot 3 me showing up to hopefully be thrown on the end. When I arrived at the first rehearsal at a ballroom dance studio in midtown last Thursday, it was a surprise to see such a variety of dancers - short, tall, younger, older, and even some guys (and only 1 real Rockette)!

In an email earlier that week we were requested to wear "head to toe white" to the first rehearsal. I emailed back more than once to confirm this detail, because I sure as heck didn't want to show up to dance glowing like a marshmallow if everyone else would be in normal bland dark dance clothes. Since I'm more of a black-wearing person myself, I had to run out the night before to search for cheap white clothes to wear - not an easy task in the heart of winter. After a time-and-energy-consuming trip to 34th street I only came up with white tights and a white headband. Luckily the morning of rehearsal I ran to another cheap store to find a shirt and white sneakers. I was not looking forward to wearing this getup.

I walked into studio early to find just a few other dancers stretching and coordinating their whites. With my bag stuffed from carrying both white clothes AND normal clothes just in case, I was relieved to see others had followed (odd) orders too. I put my stuff down in the corner and tried to get ready without dirtying my fresh clothes. More people filed in chattering and waving to friends from the very small New York dance world.

A few familiar faces walked in. "Hey, it's Taylor from ballet class!" the real Rockette K. said as she came in. I waved and smiled. Not two seconds later another girl stretching in white leaned over. "Are you the Taylor who knows C.?" Yes! He is the guy that graciously got me the opportunity, and apparently recruited her as well for it because they work together. We started talking and laughing immediately as the other 32 people filtered in the studio.

(my all white getup)

Promptly at 2:30pm, the company manager fellow who coordinated the rehearsal schedule got our attention and took attendance. He introduced the 3 main dancers who have been traveling on the regular tour, and the assistant choreographer who would teach us later.

Then David Byrne introduced himself. Familiar with him or not, right away I could tell he was amazing. His snowy white hair matched his own white outfit, and he spoke with a friendly smile.

Soon all 32 of us dancers were up and standing in a random line of shapes and sizes waiting to be organized into our real formation. I made my way to the very end of the line, 1) because I'm short and 2) it would be more comfortable to kick on the end rather than squished between 2 people, if I can help it. The asst. choreographer shuffled people around quickly, but I have yet to figure out the exact pattern he was trying to make. It wasn't your typical tall in the middle, short on the ends kind of line. It was something of a wave of heights, but even from the show pictures it's kind of indistinguishable. Anyway, at the last second he switched me two spots to my right. I became the third one in, no problem.

We introduced ourselves to our kick line neighbors (D. to my left and S. to my right) and immediately began learning choreography. It went quick. We stayed separated to learn the steps before we hooked up in the crowded line, which was good for individual learning but bad for space: we kept kicking each other by using different timing, haha. Oh well, we all figured it out eventually.

After day one all the steps were taught. Day two was spent cleaning up the details and organizing steps in the actual line (like whose elbow goes in front of whose when you're so close together). We also added on the beginning part where we actually ran onstage and did a "peel" to get to our places in line. It was complicated with so many people and took several repetitive tries, but it helped the choreography feel more natural and comfortable to do it over and over. It definitely makes you appreciate the organization of the real Rockettes and the planning of the Christmas Show in general (they had all that stage traffic figured out for us before we even came in the studio!). Everyone was in a very light mood and laughing throughout the work.

Also on the second day, the actual choreographer came to give helpful hints and David's backup singers came to fit into the stage puzzle. Everyone was so friendly! What a treat to work with people like that. We got to see how the full song ("Burning Down the House") would run, with David starting it and his main dancers doing their thing.

It's important to note that David Byrne himself was present for the entire process. It's great for the artist to be so fully involved in such a seemingly trivial aspect of his show. He sat out of the way in the corner during our kick learning and even took some pictures (I think? He was down the other end of the line but I thought I saw a camera at hand). Then when we fit the whole song together on day two he got up, played the air guitar as if it were real, and helped the choreographer with traffic issues. It was great and very collaborative!

The best part came the next two days: the shows! Returning to the stage door of Radio City felt so good. We had to stop at security to get stage door passes (very cool) before heading up to our dressing rooms. We stayed in the Rockette dressing rooms, which even after living at the theater for 2 months I still hadn't seen! They're great, and quite different from my dressing room as an ensemble member at Christmas. I was one of the first ones there, so I stole a prime mirror spot and unloaded my makeup and white "costume."

We had sound check before the show, so we gathered in the house while waiting for David to get to our part. Walking into the audience through the pass door from backstage again was...surreal. I got the chills. Twice before I've done that: when I was 7 or 8 and came to see the Christmas Show on a visit to the city with my parents, and when we had our first day of tech this year for the Christmas Show. It's overwhelmingly large and just...beautiful.

David's music was blasting and the lights were a blinding kaleidoscope across the ceiling and seats. Save for the few of us earlybirds, the house was empty. I moved to the center section and sat reveling. The bass was deafening. Nobody was near. I let out a fantastic scream for no reason, and it felt SO good. Slowly others came out to stretch, and soon the aisles were filled with splits and hamstring tugs. Peace is when you can lay down on the floor of the theater (pretending to be warming up) and close your eyes.

Before we knew it David called us all up onstage to map out our section. It was quick. The immediate wing area looked so different from what I was used to at Christmas, with no Rockette tour bus or ballerina bear heads or candy cane scenery. It was a bit disorienting with all of the music and speaker equipment cables running everywhere. I nearly tripped more than once (a big stash went right across the wing we were supposed to run on through!). But we staged our dance successfully and were released for dinner during the crew's break.

Being the overachiever that I am, instead of going to dinner or hanging around backstage, I ran a few blocks uptown to take barre of ballet class during the break. I needed a real warm up even though we didn't really dance that much. That way I could enjoy the concert beforehand instead of worrying about getting my legs prepared.

The first show was a blast. I put on makeup quickly and spent the entire concert dancing in the wings with everyone else. It was so loud back there and the lights were blinding since we were staring almost straight at them. But it was like one big party back there. Everyone was energized. The stagehands must have thought we were all crazy bouncing around for an hour and a half. But some remembered me from the Christmas Show, haha.

Towards the end we got our cue to get ready, and all 32 of us went back to get "tutu'd up." So funny. 32 dancers in overly-fluffy tutus dancing in the dark to muffled music as a warm up. It was a priceless image.

Actually dancing was amazing, of course. Since it was already his second encore, the audience was wild. Unlike the Christmas Show, the orchestra pit was filled with seats, the house lights were brighter, and the people were standing and shaking in excitement. When we came out there was a HUGE roar. And an even bigger one when we started to kick. What a rush! Our full dance time was probably less than a minute, but it was a minute of bliss. Everyone from the fourth balcony to the fans touching the stage was standing and screaming when we finished. It was great, we got a second to stand there and just look out while David introduced his choreographers. Oh, that view...

The second show was just as fun, with perhaps an even wilder crowd. From the wings we could get a glimpse of the first few rows of the audience. They looked like they were having the time of their lives with all of David's fantastic music. His main dancers were excellent, too (and so nice!). What energy. I think they felt like Radio City was something special, too.

After the show while waiting for the elevator up to the dressing room David and his crew passed. "Good job you guys! We'll see you later?" he exclaimed. I don't know how he could not be exhausted and grumpy after the high-powered show he just finished - I would be! Anywyay, we heard earlier that afternoon that we were invited to the after party in the lower lobby. Great that they included us. I stayed for just a few minutes before heading home from an incredible weekend.

What an honor to be part of something so much fun, and for getting paid for it! Sometimes life (especially in these gloomy winter months and this even gloomier recession) seems so mundane and dark, but it's so worth it to save up the average times for a single weekend of glamour. I am SO SO SO grateful to have had this opportunity and I can only hope to experience something like it again.

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