Rockettes' Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the Patriot Center and Verizon Center

The Rockettes' Radio City Christmas Spectacular came to the Patriot Center at George Mason University in Fairfax and is traveling to the Verizon Center this weekend.
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009

With those light-up antlers and Santa suits, toy soldier outfits and legs, legs, legs, there's not a new idea to be found in the Rockettes' Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and that's the beauty of it. It's all retro glamorous, retro charming, retro cute at every sharp half-turn.

If you want to get technical about it, the Rockettes' "arena tour" coming to Verizon Center Friday through Sunday does include a recently added number called "New York at Christmas," in which the world-famous precision dancers, wearing short white gloves and Navy caps, scoot around the stage on a double-decker tour bus like sailors on shore leave while scenes of Manhattan flash on a screen behind them. And then there's the "Let Christmas Shine" finale, where the dancers go clickety-clack as they kick, shivering the rows of Swarovski crystals that crisscross their bodies and dangle from their hips. That's a freshened-up routine, too, though the look is divinely deco: very Ziegfeld, very Erté, the 21st century by way of 20th Century Fox.

The Rockettes romanticize the past like nobody's business, spooning great dollops of nostalgia a la mode into our hungry maws with every step of their T-strap pumps.

And the message, if you care to freight something so innocent and uncomplicated with meaning, is unchanged since the Great Depression thrilled to the dancers' first eye-high kicks: America, what a glorious place! New York, fun capital of the world! With their touring production, even the impersonal Patriot Center, where the dancers played four shows in two days, ending Wednesday night, became a socko docking station for the Rockettes' rocket ship, a soaring, streamlined, zoomerific marvel of beauty, perfection and unblemished hope. Ain't life a kick!

You may not have given the Rockettes much thought recently, but I bet you're glad to know they're still around. They're like Alaska. Most of us may never see it, but we need to know it's there. Unchanged, to the extent possible. Well, I can proudly report back from the far reaches of I-495 that the Rockettes are unchanged. And they are absolutely worth a pilgrimage downtown when they make their Verizon stand.

Why? Why is it that no matter how many times in a 90-minute show they do it, that kick line still gets cheers? What is it about those simple steps, those cliched routines, the repetitive drills that cause such theatrical excitement? The Rockettes are not just exciting to watch; there's something deeply moving about them. I'm not ashamed to admit that if I'd unclenched my lower lip from a set of determined teeth on Tuesday, I would have blubbered like a baby when the tempo of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" dropped down to a slow march and the dancers high-stepped into a Busby Berkeley pinwheel, rotating like clockworks, like a bicycle's big chain ring, like the master gear of some marvelous machine.

That's really the key, come to think of it. It's not by accident that the Rockettes prompt thoughts of cogs and machinery. There's something so vintage Americana in their style that goes deeper than their obvious athleticism and good looks. I think there's a Rockettesian element in our psyche that these ladies tap into, a gateway to primitive reptilian memories of what used to be called "the industrial sublime." Even if we weren't around for it, we know it like our mother's heartbeat: It's the punch of American industry. The vigor of a country that made things.

The machine age wasn't just a fact, it was an aesthetic. It wasn't so much the products as the process that caught the public's imagination as the new era dawned -- those moving parts, that perfect timing! Parts could be perfected, time and motion could be perfected -- couldn't society, and man himself, be perfected? And who embodies that optimism more than a line of radiant look-alike showgirls moving as one beautiful unit?

Maybe it's all the sour economic news in the air this Christmas. But it seems to me that, now more than ever, the Rockettes steer us guilelessly back to when manufacturing was king. (Oh, the irony for our outsourced times!) When our mass production busted out the industrial miracle of World War II, building tanks, aircraft and a Navy fleet into FDR's grandly conjured "arsenal of democracy."

Are the Rockettes making you weep now, too? Theirs may be but an arsenal of legocracy, but in all its quasi-quaintness, its bygone wholesomeness, it's a pumped-up relic of an earlier age, and every year it gets only more charming. Bless the directors for not messing with it.

That's not to say the show is outdated hokum; far from it. There's aggressive technology -- the immense screen, the cannons that fire faux-snow at the audience (front rows, be warned); the wireless microphones worn by the entire cast including eight singers.

Two numbers haven't changed since 1933: the exquisitely simple "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and the "Living Nativity" scene, which could have been staged and dressed by Cecil B. De Mille, with the three kings awash in an ocean of sequins.

There's something else unchanged in the Christmas Spectacular: art. The simplest of the Rockettes' routines organizes human activity with the clean logic of Euclidean geometry and the elegance of a military close-order drill. Doing simple steps well isn't the Rockettes' invention; there are passages of synchronized ensemble work for seemingly infinite rows of women in the ballets "Giselle," "La Bayadère" and "Swan Lake." But the Rockettes have perfected it. I saw no bobbles, no wobbles, no little adjustment steps -- not as easy as it may seem, particularly for 18 women dancing shoulder to shoulder in heels.

The massing of dancers is, of course, a big part of the effect; the arena show has fewer dancers than at Radio City, but the gigantism of the '30s and '40s is preserved in the multiplicative dazzlement that is the Rockettes' chief currency. Freed from plot, unencumbered by individuality, they are all style. Style is their form and their content, their art and their science, their past and their present, and God willing, their future. They helped kick the blues away in the '30s -- and by gum, they can still do it now, at least for 90 perfect minutes.

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular Starring the Rockettes

At the Verizon Center Friday through Sunday. or or 202-397-SEAT.

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