NEW YORK — It’s a little after 8 on a recent Sunday morning, the light still dim, no crowds yet at Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree. But across the street, in the grand foyer of Radio City Music Hall, there’s a thick crowd at the bar.
This is a strictly no-latte zone. When you’re waiting for the 9 a.m. “Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes,” what you do is order a Manhattan or a Naughty Santa. In this festive art deco temple, it’s never too early for a cocktail.
Many of us, in our heads, have slipped into the era during which everyone held a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other. We’re clutching our peppermint-striped 3-D glasses and maybe a little liquid cheer garnished with a candy cane, and we’re super pumped.
It’s never too 21st century for the Rockettes.
“They’re kind of beautiful,” says Jim Avancena, 66, of Potomac, who’s sitting on the carpeted steps in the lower lobby, the force of gravity for a multigenerational family in a very merry mood, with grandchildren hopping in orbit around him and two daughters nearby.
“I’ve never seen so many beautiful legs.”
Beauty plus legs. That’s why a lot of people say they show up to see the world’s most famous kick line, which since 1933 has been drawing admiring audiences to one of the world’s largest theaters.
But surely there’s more to why the Rockettes are still going strong after 85 years. Two casts of 80 dancers perform up to six shows a day for a two-month stretch in a theater that seats 6,000. They’ve been at it so long that despite their famed look-alike uniformity, they possess an element of originality — the last kick line standing.
To be sure, there are new features this year, like the chic yellow minidresses for the finale. At one point, acrobats spin on wires over the stage. There are spiffed-up video projections of the city for the “New York at Christmas” number, when the Rockettes ride around the stage in a double-decker bus and then strip down to sparkly halter-top frocks as they disembark. (Because they are ladies, not strippers, they neatly fold their overcoats and place them in a bin by the bus driver.)
But really, who cares about the new bits? We’re here for the nostalgia. Throw at us all the vintage Americana that can fit into 90 uninterrupted minutes. A couple of numbers date to the Depression, such as the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” where the Rockettes, in high-waisted, wide-legged trousers, march and wheel about in geometric formations and tumble over backward like slow-motion dominos, their linear form unbroken because the dancers are hooked arm in arm. It’s incredibly technically difficult to execute, and it’s also deeply moving, a vision of sisterhood and sacrifice and a blow softened by sharing it.
Another number from the first years is the epic living nativity scene, with its Cecil B. DeMille, biblical-blockbuster look — live camels and a donkey strolling across that giant stage and everyone from the three Magi on down trailing yards of Technicolor silk. You can see it as an affirmation of faith, or as pure spectacle. The show leaves it up to you and quickly moves on to another kick line. Matters of the soul and the flesh are held in exquisite balance.
“It cuts across political lines,” says Tulane University’s Victor Holtcamp, a dance and theater professor with an interest in Americana. “If you are in love with Christmas, that can still manage to bring people on right and left together. It hasn’t been totally co-opted by one side or the other.”
“It used to be that lots of musicals had a chorus line in them,” he adds. “It’s like a time capsule in that way. That style of musical theater has moved on.”
Mark Morris, a prominent modern-dance choreographer and director of the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group, saw the Rockettes in the early 1970s on his first trip to New York alone, traveling from his native Seattle, and he was hooked. He’s gone back innumerable times.
“It’s corny and supremely touching and exciting,” Morris says. “The precision, the high kicks, the physical extremity and accuracy, the pep and unification. That expertise and accuracy and confidence is comforting to people.”
Comforting to people. The Rockettes are all about power and cheery domination — they are a glittering army in heels — but there is no hierarchy. Their power is group power. It’s a collective whose uplifting force is greater than what any single dancer could achieve. There is something reassuringly American about them, their natural athleticism, their beauty, their wholesome sexiness.
The chorus line emerged from a time of regularized movement, from the fascination with moving parts and precise timing of the machine age. That infinitely refined process is the aesthetic behind the Rockettes and their precision dancing. And yet its allure has proved to be timeless. The digital age has introduced new ways to feel like a commodity, valued or not depending on algorithms and “machine learning.” These women offer consolation. They stretch their arms around one another and soothe us with a vision of human connection.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. conveyed spiritual, almost anti-capitalist qualities (the irony) upon the Rockettes when he said they remind us that “the only way we can find success in any walk of life is in working for the group and not for personal aggrandizement.”
The Rockettes, like a work of art, invite interpretation.
And that is their central appeal. We see in them what we want to see.
In the foyer before the show stands a tall, distinguished-looking man in a fine wool overcoat. He has a sense of bearing and elegance about him. His name is George Powers, of Savannah, Ga., he tells me, and he’s here with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, taking in the Christmas sights. Over the years, he has seen the Rockettes perhaps a dozen times. His wife, Ellen, tells me it’s the only dance show he’ll go see.
Why is that? I ask him.
“They’re so iconic,” he begins, in a slow drawl. “And for me . . . ”
“It’s the legs.”
The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes Through Jan. 6 at Radio City Music Hall. rockettes.com.