O Christmas Legs, O Christmas Legs

Why I love the Rockette holiday show.

New York’s Radio City Rockettes 

After a successful national tour in 2008, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is again scooting across North America this holiday season. Having deep faith in the Rockettes, I believe that whichever 36 troupers stride your way in Dallas or Seattle will give you their merry all, their smiles as white as searchlights and as generous as Santa himself. But having just seen the show in its native habitat, I have a new appreciation for both Radio City Music Hall and for city life itself. Presenting great abundance (without gross excess) and rigorous order (without oppressive rigidity), the Rockettes are a vision of urban utopia. The composer Richard Wagner famously went on about the gesamtkunstwerk—the complete work of art drawing on all media. Any reasonable philosophy of aesthetics must acknowledge the Christmas Spectacular as a project worthy of that name. Would you laugh me out of the room for suggesting that the show might indeed be the pop apotheosis of Wagner’s great gesundheit? Must I lay out the specifics of the whole elating show? There is one fat man in a red suit. There are 12 scenes of holiday joy, many featuring supporting players, so that you get a gracious Nativity, a sick-making 3-D ride on Santa’s sleigh, and a Nutcracker condensed into the gentlest medley—no three-headed rat kings need apply. The fat man is aware of his status as a camp figure. When he says, “What would Christmas be without a little holiday ham?” a rim shot issues from the orchestra pit. One scene, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” is a computer-assisted demonstration of the Santa’s omnipresence: The dancing Santas seem to recede to infinity—a perfection of the Busby Berkeley-style psychedelia which, like the earliest Christmas Spectaculars, got its screwy energy from the tumult of the 1930s. There are three dozen distinguished alumnae of Ms. So-and-So’s School of Jazz, Tap, and Ballet—women of sound morals and fine wiggles, wholesome but hardly naive. The Rockette is a Manhattanite ideal of the girl next door, and she is very versatile, equally comfortable hoofing to a gospel-rich “Joy to the World” or a “12 Days of Christmas” that shifts from funk-u-up Prince synthesizers to rock-me-Amadeus harpsichords. Yes, they cancan. The Rockette kick line redefines what the best seat in the house is: You want to be far away enough almost to take the whole file in, close enough that registering its endpoints taxes your peripheral vision, and you want to be dead center for the sake of symmetry. The delightful dancers and delighted orchestra belt out season’s greetings as if the Art Deco proscenium arch were a megaphone. A few of the supporting players are dressed in the sparkling duds of angelic ushers, and they help the fun float into the grand lobby. The lobby is so plush and deluxe that it’s mind-altering in own right; also, I believe you can buy beer and Irish coffee and a “frozen Rockettini” in a collectible cup as early as the 11 a.m. show. This festive atmosphere leaks into the street and extends to the Deco heaven of Rockefeller Center, which continues the dream of the proscenium. Standing down the block, waiting for the next show, a slightly prissy out-of-town tourist will observe to a friend that this is “not the friendliest city.” To which a third party says, “Screw you.”There’s one moment in the show where the Rockettes appears as tourists themselves, wheeling around on a double-decker bus in white hats and iridescent coats, their costume jewelry glinting like flashbulbs. And there’s another—in a film supplying a short history of the dance troupe—that cuts between shots of feet pounding the Depression-era pavement and dancing before the black-and-white footlights. Part of the charm of the Rockettes is to make all the city but a stage.