For two Radio City Rockettes, the Milwaukee showing of the "Christmas Spectacular" is a holiday homecoming. Melissa Hillmer and Candace Jablonski, both Wisconsin natives, moved to New York years ago and have been kicking it high with the Rockettes ever since.
Luckily, the Rockettes annual "Christmas Spectacular" comes to the U.S. Cellular Arena this week, giving you a chance to see the show and Hillmer and Jablonski a chance to check in on their hometown.
Melissa Hillmer, originally from Manitowoc, WI, joined the Rockettes eight years ago. Previously touring with the Broadway show, "Sweet Charity" in the off season, Hillmer now spends her summers in Milwaukee attending the University of WI- Milwaukee. As an adult returning student, Hillmer is working on a degree in communications.
"I love being able to show off the city to the other Rockettes. Everyone loves walking around the city- and so many who don't know Milwaukee, see the history and find the people so friendly. They really get a good feel of Milwaukee," Hillmer explains. "They think it's going to be cold, dark and industrial but when they see what's really here, I'm proud of it."
Candace Jablonski, former Miss West Allis 1998, grew up in the Milwaukee area and attended UW- Stevens Point before moving to New York. Currently living in New York, Jablonski begins her fifth season with the Rockettes and teaches contemporary dance in the off season.
"We're touring to 18 cities; Milwaukee is the third city. Besides the classic numbers performed since 1933, we'll have some brand new Rockettes numbers and new costumes. It's as choreographed on stage as it is back stage. It's bigger and grander. Santa is going to fly, there is going to be snow, fireworks, it's literally a spectacular," Jablonski explains.
The "Christmas Spectacular" represents a piece of holiday Americana for over 75 years. After celebrating the 75th anniversary with a blowout show last fall in New York, the "Christmas Spectacular" goes on the road this winter completely redesigned and re-imagined. For the first time, show is intended for an arena audience; boasting a full 360 degree view with dozens of dancers, child singers and special effects.
"In the new number, "New York at Christmas", there's a full size double decker bus on stage with 12 Rockettes on the top floor and 12 Rockettes on the bottom floor. There is a huge LED screen behind the stage, the largest one touring the country right now, which takes the audience on a journey through the streets of New York," Hillmer explains. "To me, it's really New York at Christmas."
In all, the Rockettes have 8 costume changes each show. Dressing as Santa, Rudolf and Rag dolls, the Rockettes glisten and glow on stage in a multitude of detailed costumes. Most impressively, one costume is covered with over 3,000 Swarovski crystals. But don't assume, the show's tradition ends with the intensely choreographed dancing. The costumes worn in the "Toy Soldier" piece mimic the design used in the 1930 show.
The Rockettes begin a grueling rehearsal schedule mid September; practicing six hours a day, six days a week. During the holiday season, the group performs up to four ninety minute shows a day, six days a week from September to January.
"We rehearse Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. so that when the 90 minute show comes, we're really in shape. But it is exhausting. So you kind of have to get your rest and eat well," Hillmer says. "We eat anything and everything at that point to keep up high energy."
Jablonski continues, "It takes a toll on your body, just like any professional athlete. You're doing the same movement over and over, so day to day, it wears on you. But we've all been dancing for years, so we know how to take care of our bodies."
The Rockettes 175 member team is composed of women from all over the United States. Dancers, over the age of 18, come from a variety of backgrounds and dance experience.
"Some of them are just out of school and some are returning to school like me. Some of them are mothers or business owners. It really is a diverse group of women," Hillmer explains.
Since 1933, the Rockettes' precision dance group has been performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. A classic aspect of Christmas in New York City, over one million New Yorkers and Big Apple visitors flock to see the show every year. It wasn't until 1994 that the show went on the road; now touring to over 15 US cities.
"It's just such a piece of Americana. No matter what was going on in the world, from the war to the depression, you could go to Radio City and enjoy the show. It became a tradition for grandparents to take their kids and their grandchildren," Hiller explains.
The Rockettes have performed Radio City Music Hall for the last 75 years as well as the Macy's Day Parade and the Rockefeller Plaza tree lighting.
"We're famous for our high kicks but the Rockettes are really more than that. They've become a visual aspect of America. It shows a lot; that women can be a glamorous icon that can be attractive, driven and intelligent," Hillmer says.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Maureen Post grew up in Wauwatosa. A lover of international and urban culture, Maureen received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
After living on the east side of Madison for several years, Maureen returned to Milwaukee in 2006.
After a brief stint of travel, Maureen joined OnMilwaukee.com as the city’s oldest intern and has been hooked ever since. Combining her three key infatuations, Milwaukee’s great music, incredible food and inspiring art (and yes, in that order), Maureen’s job just about fits her perfectly.
Residing in Bay View, Maureen vehemently believes the city can become fresh and new with a simple move across town.