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Inside the Rockette auditions where 800 dancers are hoping to be Spectacular

It’s called a Christmas Spectacular for a reason.

Auditions for the legendary Radio City Rockettes began this week as more than 800 dedicated dancers flooded the Midtown theater for an open call and a once-in-a-lifetime shot to join the show.

Competition is fierce, with only 14 openings in the 84 positions between the Christmas Spectacular show’s two companies last year.

The Post got an exclusive glimpse into day two of auditions on Thursday, those who didn’t make it took the bad break like champs — keeping a neutral face with no sign of tears before silently walking out as auditions went on.

“Auditioning can be stressful, and it’s a high-pressure situation,” Rockettes captain Danelle Morgan told The Post.

Meanwhile, the ones asked to return for day three kept it professional and mostly contained their emotions, though some certainly grinned — and two quietly held hands as they heard their names called.

Rockettes captain Danelle Morgan spoke to The Post about the journey many take to try out for the coveted dance squadron. Jeenah Moon

For day one on Wednesday, leotard-clad women came from 23 nations as far as Japan and 47 states including Alaska — only for about 600 to be sent home right away. Strapped into their trusty character heel shoes, they had just a 15-second window to demonstrate their high kicks and other moves to the best in the business.

“I watch to see how they pay attention, their attention to detail and if they listen,” director and choreographer Julie Branam told The Post, adding that a “strong ballet foundation” is an absolute must.

“How they respond if they get a note [of critique] or if they’re just in another world,” she explained. “I look to see if they have confidence and they like what they’re doing.”

Director Julie Branam, seen left of captain Danelle Morgan broke down what she looks for in a new Rockette. Jeenah Moon

She also gets a quick glimpse at a dancer’s possible intangibles by how they execute a Bevel — the iconic Rockette pose with one’s tippy-toed foot propped in front like a prance. (This reporter got the motion down pat, thank you very much, after a pro tip from Morgan.)

A day in the life

Hundreds flocked to Radio City this week for a chance to join the Rockettes. Jeenah Moon

Those who survived day one were invited back to the dance studio several floors above Radio City’s hallowed theater. After a wave of cuts Thursday, the remaining dancers were split into four groups of about 50 tryouts each as they readied for a much more in-depth look at their skills over two hours, accompanied by live drums and piano.

Standing in front of the eager ensemble out to prove themselves, Morgan and fellow captain Amarisa LeBar led each tryout group — split in half — in choreographed moves they had only minutes to perfect.

At that point, many dancers — LeBar herself included, many years ago — realized what might come to fruition.

Amarisa LeBar led called-back dancers in new routines they had to learn quickly. Jeenah Moon

“I know that was the moment where maybe my dream could become a reality,” LeBar told The Post of what knowing comes next. “You go into that with dependency on just your training, your background of dance and just put in the work.”

Branam instructed them to perform a ballet number, followed by a thunderous tap routine. Then after some cuts, they performed a jazzy bit — which, of course, included the Rockettes’ infamous eye-high kicks — to get a fair and full telling of the dancers’ range.

While fatigue and sweat may set for many, the dancers’ faces never showed any signs of weakness — even if they missed a step. Instead, cheek-to-cheek smiles punctuated their intense steps that required military-like precision. After all, that’s what the Rockettes are known for.

But then came the hard part.

Dancers were ready to learn new steps as they auditioned for the Rockettes. Jeenah Moon

Rockette hopefuls next performed the routine in much smaller, more intimate groups of four as Branam, Morgan, LeBar and other choreographers watched from an “American Idol”-esque judges’ table.

After dancing elbow-to-elbow all day with fellow wannabees, suddenly all eyes were on groups of four, who took the floor to showcase their talents. Intensely watching, the evaluators took notes on each dancer before deciding who would move on.

In total, 32 of 53 got a final callback in the first of four sessions on Thursday.

Branam, Morgan, LaBarr and other choreographers sit at a table as they watched and graded dancers four at a time to see who would make it to the next round. Jeenah Moon
Groups broke off into small clusterings of four as dancers were graded on performance. Many practice in the mirror as they rest. Jeenah Moon

Even though the journey was far from over for those who moved on, successful auditioners like Kayla Hsu, 20, of New Jersey could appreciate what it meant just to reach the final day.

“I would say it’s a sense of relief, but also just a moment I’m so proud of — getting through the day and going back and just putting in all my effort and all,” she told The Post moments after getting a callback for Friday.

However, things would get even tougher and more focused on Friday, the third and final day, as tryouts would perform again but in groups of three — with even more choreography added.

Kayla Hsu works on a routine during Thursday’s callbacks. Jeenah Moon

“A lot of people I see are really good in the [larger] group, then they get to three at a time and they dance small and doubt themselves,” said Branam, a former Rockette.

“It’s about how can they overcome that and be confident in what they can train so hard to do.”

Smiles, everyone!

Smiling and staying cheery is an integral part of tryouts. Jeenah Moon

Despite all that’s on the line, Branam commands “a roomful of happy people” — and it shows.

Dancers are in considerably high spirits, applauding themselves and others at the end of routines — cracking some jokes, even — and smiling throughout it all.

Morgan recalled “having a lot of fun” on her very first audition, which she “treated as a dance class.”

Even current dancers vying for a spot, like 23-year-old Danielle Esposito of Manhattan, are letting the thrill sink in.

“There’s such an excitement in this building,” she told The Post. “The show is so iconic, it’s really hard to not be supportive and excited for everyone who gets this opportunity.”

A second chance to shine

Kayla Hsu and Makayla Fontaine perform for the Rockettes brass on Thursday. Jeenah Moon

Surprisingly, being cut isn’t as devastating a moment as one might imagine.

That’s because in 2020 the Rockettes introduced a conservatory program that has been developing future talent to join the team after they undertake the expenses-paid intensive over the summer.

Then they can re-audition for the show in August.

When announcing callbacks, Branam stressed that being cut doesn’t exclude performers from a prospective invitation to the conservatory, which is led by Rockettes and noteworthy dance academies like Alvin Ailey’s The Ailey School.

Positive attitudes are a huge part of the audition process. Jeenah Moon

“I’m a little bit more prepared,” Makayla Fontaine, who traveled from Houston, Texas, to audition, told The Post.

“It taught me a lot. I grew a lot as a dancer, became more familiar with the style, and it helped build confidence,” added the 25-year-old, who reached the final day after doing the conservatory last summer.

Danielle Esposito said the energy in Radio City was palpable as she auditioned and was called back for Friday. Jeenah Moon

As for what’s in store for audiences this holiday season once the roster is finalized, Morgan is keeping as tight-lipped as Santa is over his annual naught-and-nice list.

“We’re always working on something,” she said.

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