More than anything, the Rockettes — they of New York’s Radio City Music Hall fame — are known for what they do with those shapely pairs of dancing sticks, lined up in a chorus line, kicking for the rafters with mechanical precision.
Called "eye-high kicks," they’re the trademark move for the venerable dance troupe. And promoters have banked on the idea that a gaggle of those gam-raisers could be the perfect prescription for kicking off the Christmas holiday in grand fashion.
Last year, several touring productions of the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" played to more than 1 million people in eight cities across the country, including a successful stop in Phoenix. Starting Friday at Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium, the Rockettes are back for a three-week encore.
There, the dancers will present a holiday spectacle that aims to recapture last year’s fans as well as win over new converts who haven’t quite yet
pilgrimage to Radio City themselves. The 90-minute show is divided into nine song-and-dance routines, including longtime favorites ("Parade of the Wooden Soldiers") and a few new additions, like a tap "Twelve Days of Christmas."
"The ‘Radio City Christmas Spectacular’ is about keeping the holiday tradition alive, keeping everyone together. We want to spread joy across the country," says seven-year Rockettes veteran Karyn Read.
The Rockettes style is all about uniformity. The New York organization uses 36 girls on stage performing with mirrorlike exactitude — giving the effect of a high-stepping centipede, only more elegant. The five annual touring productions whittle that number to 18 dancers, though Read says it makes no less an impact.
"We’re all the same. We all look the same," she says. "It’s an amazing illusion to have every single Rockette look the same, doing the same movement at the same time."
Even critics — who aren’t prone to gushing over tired Christmas retreads — fawn over the show. A Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic says the cast dances "with the tightly engineered precision of Blue Angels pilots."
History has been kind for the dance troupe that formed in 1925 in St. Louis with the very sportslike name of the Missouri Rockets. A 1933 move to New York allowed the group to become the country’s premier chorus line. And while the rest of the entertainment industry has tried to dethrone the Rockettes as our most well-known female look-alike ensemble ("The Stepford Wives," Robert Palmer music videos) and feminism has threatened to render its leggy attraction obsolete, the plucky dance behemoth still comes out kicking.
For some audiences, the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" is an antiquated piece of Americana — a lavish tribute to a bygone era of razzledazzle innocence.
"I think it’s different than how the world has changed over the years and how the world has become," Read says. "It’s wholesome and familyoriented, and that’s just not around much anymore."
In 1994, the New York ensemble opened itself to create a brood of touring productions. Though the tours have been moneymakers, they’ve also drawn their share of controversy.
For local theater and ballet companies proffering their own "A Christmas Carols" and "Nutcrackers," seeing a show with a brand identity as solid as the Rockettes’ settle into town on the holidays has been a nightmare resulting in dramatically lower revenue, during an otherwise lucrative season for the performing arts.
Ballet Arizona’s executive director, Sherry New, told The Boston Globe in November that her company’s ticket sales for "The Nutcracker" dropped considerably when Radio City came to Phoenix’s Dodge Theatre in 2002.
Some companies have opted out of the seasonal competition altogether. Phoenix Theatre is offering a low-key show called "The Quiltmaker’s Gift" aimed at a youth audience instead of its own Christmas mega-production.
"I figured, why don’t we just stay away from that holiday?" says Michael Barnard, Phoenix Theatre’s executive director.
Read’s response: "When the Radio City Christmas Spectacular comes to town, you can’t shy away from that."
A 20-year dancer who had previously toured in cruise ship shows, Read joined a Rockettes’ cast in Detroit six years ago and stayed with it in her home state each winter before accepting a position this winter with the company touring from Seattle (closing its run today) to Phoenix.
She spent Thanksgiving with her cast mates and expects to do the same on Christmas.
"Even though I’m away from home, my cast is my family," she says.
When the touring season is over in January, Read will go home to take other dancing gigs, as well as miscellaneous employment opportunities (read: Retail jobs).
But it’s worth it, she says, to keep alive a national institution that inspires so many young girls to become dancers.
"Every little girl," Read said, "dreams of being a Radio City Rockette."
See the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday. Runs 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday (only 1 p.m. Dec. 24, no show on Dec. 25, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 30); 1, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m., 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 12, 3:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday; and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 29
Where: Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium, Mill Avenue and Apache Boulevard, Tempe
Cost: $19.75 to $58.50
Information: (480) 784-4444