By Samuel Farber*
HAVANA TIMES — My expectations were not high when I accepted the invitation of an old out-of-town friend to see the Rockettes’ Christmas show. But once there, the cultural shock made my critical faculties go on overdrive as if they had been put on steroids.
When I last saw the Rockettes in the 1960s, accompanying my mother in her yearly pilgrimage to Radio City Music Hall, it was still possible to imagine that this cultural icon might be affected, if not transformed, by the upheavals of the decade.
Fifty years later however, I am disappointed to say, although I am not exactly surprised, that what has actually taken place is a significant cultural deterioration caused by the relentless commodification of late capitalism with minimal concessions to any social advances of the last half century. The Radio City Hall Rockettes’ show has come to represent conservative white America.
The Hall, renovated some years back, is still architecturally very impressive. The monumental Art Deco building with its high ceilings, faithfully reproduced carpets, spacious lounges, magnificent lamps and chandeliers in the lobby and theater proper are awesome. But the majestic lobby has been grievously degraded with chintzy, vulgar kiosks peddling street fair merchandise and strategically placed advertisements selling Chase Bank and Delta among other brand names.
The quiet, elegant even solemn tone of fifty years ago has been supplanted by a circus atmosphere, the noise aggravated by the shouts of the merchants selling their wares, the ushers hurrying people, and the large scale use of cell phones with people screaming louder and louder to make themselves heard.
America’s eleventh commandment, to ensure that every space and opportunity is dedicated to making a profit and not go to waste must be obeyed. Like the building, the Rockettes show continues to be very impressive in its luxurious display of lighting, dress design, and staging that come together into a masterful combination of art, craft and machine-like drill and precision, the flawless execution of the precision dancing that the Rockettes are about.
Musically, the show however is very conservative. It has certainly adapted very well to technical change, with video games playing an important role in the spectacle. But the large orchestra sounds less square than Lawrence Welk’s only because its big band format echoes a bit of the excitement of the swing music of the thirties and forties, but there is absolutely no recognition of the musical revolution of the sixties that buried Tin Pan Alley, and much less of the Rap revolution that began in the late seventies in the Bronx, a few miles north of Radio City.
Two black singers played important roles in the show, but of the enormous dance corps of about 80 dancers, only 8% is Black (the first Black dancer was hired only in 1987). I could not find a single Spanish or Asian sounding surname in the very long roster of the dancers. Meanwhile, however, the Hall’s abundant staff of low paid service employees is overwhelmingly Black and Latino.
It is therefore not surprising that the large audience in attendance was overwhelmingly white, and except for what seem to have been a few out-of-town and foreign tourists, it looked like a suburban audience led by conservative white parents and grandparents with a very clear idea of what they wanted their children and grandchildren to see and hear: the pre-sixties, white only, world of music and dance.
It is ironic that left to themselves, many of the white suburban children and young people in the audience would have opted for rap music and dancing – after all, they constitute the single most important source of income for the big African-American rap stars. But that is not what their suburban parents and grandparents want for them. That is not “clean entertainment.”
The show was about Christmas in New York City. However, the fact that today New York City is more than 60 per cent composed of racial minorities is never acknowledged. Radio City Hall’s programming does not represent New York, or the United States of America, but a retrograde fantasy of Americana with large concessions to technical progress and capitalist commodification, and miserly concessions to social and, specifically, racial progress.
*Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba and has lived in the New York area since 1976. He is the author of Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959. A Critical Assessment published by Haymarket Books.