stg: rockettes – a review (and some history too!)

Radio City Christmas Spectacular (photo courtesy of Seattle Theatre Group)

By Rosemary Jones

Is what the Rockettes do truly dance? Is synchronized swimming an Olympic sport?

It’s all a matter of perspective, but for as many who say “no,” there’s an equal or even larger number of people who say, “Yes! And sign me up for tickets while you’re at it.”

At the packed Paramount Theatre on opening night of the Rockettes’ current visit to Seattle, the crowd was obviously there to see the long-legged gals kick step in perfect uniformity across the stage. Other performers travel with the Rockettes, dancing and singing cheery Christmas songs in a bare bones plot about Santa getting ready for his big day, but the ensemble people obviously exist to let the Rockettes take a little breather and change into another fabulous costume for their next appearance.

In doing so, the Rockettes are preserving a little piece of French entertainment mashed with American vaudeville energy. Reviews like those seen at the Folies Bergère of Paris in the 1920s and American shows like the Ziegfeld Follies always had a moment when beautiful women poured across the stage, dancing in uniform step if they could or posing gracefully up a long line of stairs if dancing was not their forte.  The costumes were elaborate but often left a lot of leg scandalously bare. (The French bared more body parts than the Americans, but that’s the French!)

Ziegfeld’s famous Follies ended in the 1930s, when the Depression made the fantasy a harder sale. Not even Flo Ziegfeld’s widow Billie Burke, a Ziegfeld girl herself and a Hollywood star, could keep that review going.

But even as the Ziegfeld Follies and many imitators died, the Rockettes began high kicking their way across Radio City Music Hall. For more than 75 years, they’ve preserved that moment of “wow” when a long, long line of lovely ladies descends down the staircase. Only, in their case, it’s even more spectacular, because they are doing the complicated routines that their founder Russell Markert envisioned as far more enthralling than a group of pretty women just standing there.

Markert recruited his first dancers in St. Louis, creating a precision dance team called the Missouri Rockets. According to some sources, the Broadway choreographer of such entertainments as Earl Carroll’s Vanities repeatedly said that if he could get a group of typical American beauties (i.e., long-legged, svelte, tall girls) and set them tapping together across the stage, the world would be enchanted. Time seems to have proven Markert right.

After a move to New York, and a brief stint as The Roxyettes, the troupe opened Radio City Music Hall in 1932 as the Rockettes.  They even traveled to Paris in 1937 to compete in the Paris International Exposition, taking a grand prize in dance. Markert remained their chief choreographer until 1971.

As his 1990 obituary in the New York Times stated, Markert trained and choreographed more than 2,500 women in the “intuitive mathematics” of a Rockette routine, a number that might require tap, jazz, ballet, and soft shoe as well as that famous kick that ends at least six inches over the head. While there are nods to rock-and-roll in the current Christmas review (and even a rapping elf), the dance DNA of the Rockettes remains firmly embedded in Markert’s vision of a troupe of long-legged ladies tapping in precision to the amazement of an adoring audience.

Indeed, one young man on the main floor repeatedly screamed “awesome” every time the ladies kicked their heels above their heads.  His female companion, also obviously born many decades after the Rockettes first made their appearance at Radio City Music Hall, greeted each routine with a piercing whistle of the arena variety.

So, at evening’s end, we must admit that what the Rockettes do is indeed dance. And they do it crowd-pleasingly well in a style that is all their own and also very American.