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The Rockettes and Race: A Very White Christmas

Category: Art & Culture,Theater

“Against the multicultural backdrop of New York City, a lot of people felt that my milestone came too late,” Ms. Jones said. “But New York was still three years away from electing its first African-American mayor, and when you look at the history of modern American dance, there’s a long legacy of discrimination and exclusion.”

That history of exclusion as it pertains to the Rockettes has hardly been challenged at the box office, nor, apparently, by corporate sponsors. The show opens with a recitation of the names of those many, many sponsors, but if you stop paying attention — if you get bored and check your phone to see what the Mandarin Duck is doing in the Hudson River, as I did — you have a chance to be reminded later. There’s a scene depicting Santa at the mall, and the set designers have filled the mall with the storefronts of the show’s corporate partners.

In August, the Madison Square Garden Company, which owns the annual holiday production, announced revenues of $1.6 billion, representing an 18 percent increase over the previous year. At the time, the company’s executive chairman, Jim Dolan, cited the Christmas Spectacular as a driving force of the gains.

When I questioned the Madison Square Garden Company about the racial configuration of the Rockettes, a spokeswoman responded in a statement that the company recognized that it had “work to do” and that it was “taking a number of steps to showcase greater diversity.” (One of those steps includes “building a strong and diverse dance education program to help grow an inclusive pipeline of future Rockettes.”)

If you are of a certain disposition, it is easy to see the Rockettes as a nostalgic expression for a time when women were not to step out of line. Two years ago, when the Rockettes were asked to dance at the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, some in the corps protested and voiced their displeasure. But in the Trump worldview, women dancing in bodysuits was surely what had once made American great. The show went on.

It is a curious fact of the company’s imaging that it does not include the naming of Jennifer Jones to the Rockettes during the 1980s on a website delineating the decade-by-decade history of the troupe. Instead, we are told, that during that period the Rockettes performed in Las Vegas and Tahoe and appeared in a commercial for L’eggs pantyhose. The road to enlightenment is long.

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