There's been an unusual amount of turmoil behind the scenes at Radio City Music Hall this Christmas season. It's already the most grueling time of year for the Rockettes, who dance a packed schedule of shows that push their bodies to the brink. But now there's an even bigger strain: the tension over their upcoming performance at the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, and what MarieClaire.com has discovered is a company of women who—while not required to perform, as management has stressed in recent days—still seem to largely oppose the decision made on their behalf to enter this particular political fray.
The person behind that decision is Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan, who called an impromptu meeting with the Rockettes on December 27—seemingly the first meeting since the news of the inauguration booking broke the week prior—to discuss it. In an exclusive obtained by MarieClaire.com, Dolan's statements reveal a management philosophy that fails to factor in the dancers' own concerns, despite the fact that they are the face and body of the brand.
Dolan held firm to his controversial inauguration commitment in this meeting. "This is a great national event," he said. "Every four years we put in a new president. It's a huge moment in the country's history. It usually signifies a whole change in how the government is going to run. The fact that we get to participate in it…we are an American brand, and I think it's very appropriate that the Rockettes dance in the inaugural and 4th of July and our country's great historical moments."
When asked by a woman in the room if that means the Rockettes support President-elect Trump outright, Dolan clarified "no," but when pressed about the idea that aligning the Rockettes with such a controversial figure could tarnish the brand, Dolan didn't budge: "I don't believe it's going to hurt the brand. And nobody is more concerned about that than the guy sitting in this chair. I'm about to spend $50 million remounting this summer show. I'm going to spend a similar amount remounting next year's Christmas show. I gotta sell tickets." He went on to point out that support from Trump voters isn't something he wants to miss out on: "A good portion of people voted for this person. Hopefully they will like our brand. If 1% of 1% of them come to our show, we're going to do great."
(In a statement to MarieClaire.com, MSG chief communications officer Barry Watkins said that "while Mr. Dolan stands behind everything he said during the meeting, no one in that room believed they were speaking publicly. Everyone in the meeting had the chance to speak their mind in a safe setting, and many did.")
Dolan made lengthy appeals to the employees gathered—some of whom were noticeably upset when speaking up and asking questions—that the Rockettes are a family. "And you are diverse," he said, "as diverse as we can make the Rockettes while still holding up the standards of quality." This comment may have been a reference to the news that, according to MarieClaire.com's source, no women of color have signed up to perform in the inauguration, which only underscores how few women of color are in the company overall. It's "embarrassing" on a normal day, she told us, but could become even more of a talking point as January 20 looms.
And that seems to be one of the significant issues for some women in the company right now: They're suddenly talking points in the news and targets on social media. "The social media backlash on both sides of the political spectrum has been unbearable, I think," said one dancer in the meeting. "Especially as someone who has loved and respected the Rockettes since I was three years old. I think that the Rockettes have always been apolitical, and now by performing at this particular inauguration, it's making us political." When Dolan responded that he hadn't seen hate from anyone on the pro-Trump side, she countered, "I've had people messaging me: 'Just shut up and dance.'"
"We were #1 trending on Twitter and it's just really hard to see, especially our faces being likened to Nazis," she continued. "Is this not something we could have foreseen? I think it's been really hard for all of us. Especially around Christmas, and the schedule's so hard, and we're all so tired." Her voice cracked as she spoke.
In response, Dolan focused on the idea of "tolerance," which, in the current political landscape, has significantly different implications on either side of the aisle. "I find it a little ironic—I get all of these emails, too, from people saying, 'Don't perform for this hateful person.' And then they proceed to spew out this diatribe of hate," Dolan said. When another staffer spoke up about the backlash from the theater community in particular—the dancers' friends and colleagues who "really suffered this past election cycle from this hate"—Dolan inquired, "How can they be your friends if they're not tolerant of a different opinion?"
One dancer eventually piped up: "I mean, it just sounds like you're asking us to be tolerant of intolerance." Her comment was followed by uncomfortable laughter around the room and a pause.
"Yeah, in a way, I guess we are doing that," Dolan said. "What other choices do we have? What else would you suggest?"
This may not be the last time the Rockettes find themselves in the middle of a Trump-related controversy: Dolan stated in the meeting that "we'll probably dance on July 4, and hopefully nobody will have problems with that." While he doesn't specifically state that the event might involve the future president, it's certainly possible, given our country's 200-year history of Independence Day celebrations hosted at the White House—and in that case, the dozen full-time Rockettes would not have the chance to opt out. "This is the one time we're going to do this," Dolan said of the full-time Rockettes' ability, as of December 23, to decline the upcoming inauguration performance. "We're not going to do it again."
At least the Rockettes can expect better internal communication if there is a next time. When one woman asked Dolan: "Why were we not prepared for this announcement in advance? Why was this leaked to the media before we were told? Shouldn't we have gotten the heads-up so that issues of full-time participation could have been discussed before things got out of hand the way they did?", he said only, "Yes." The response seemed to release tension from the room, as dancers openly laughed. "I'm not perfect," Dolan added. (One woman shouted "Thank you!" over the laughter.)
After nearly 40 minutes of dialogue, Dolan brought the meeting to a close. "If I was to give you a little…what is it, a sound bite? Right?" Dolan said, "I would simply say, we're celebrating a new president, not necessarily this president."
Twenty seconds of silence followed.
"All right, anybody else?" Dolan asked. "Okay. We're so proud of you."
To read the Rockette interview MarieClaire.com published last week—which may have prompted Dolan's meeting with the company later that day—go here.