Some Rockettes At Odds With Management Over Inauguration Performance

Jan 7, 2017
Originally published on January 7, 2017 3:49 pm
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The inauguration of President Trump is a couple weeks away, and his team has been scrambling to find performers. One group that signed on is the famous precision dancing troupe The Rockettes. And while they are known for synchronization onstage, cracks have begun to show in their ranks. Jeff Lunden sent this report.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When you see The Rockettes in person - thirty-six dancers of the same shape and height, all tapping and kicking in unison - it's thrilling.

ROSEMARY NOVELLINO-MEARNS: The Rockettes are the most famous dancers in the United States of America. They are America. They are apple pie.

LUNDEN: Rosemary Novellino-Mearns danced at Radio City, and she wrote a book about it.

NOVELLINO-MEARNS: You may like them. You may not like them. That's not the point. They are what they are.

LUNDEN: And dancing at presidential inaugurations has traditionally been part of the job, but this time is different. Some of The Rockettes don't want to perform for Donald Trump, whose comments about women have made them uncomfortable. That puts them in conflict with their employer, Madison Square Garden Entertainment, which agreed to the appearance without consulting the dancers. The conflict has been playing out in public, kind of.

AUTUMN WITHERS: You don't want your face and your image and your talent up there on that stage in celebration of someone like that.

LUNDEN: That's former Rockette Autumn Withers, who's still good friends with many members of the troupe. She says according to their contract...

WITHERS: When you're an active Rockette, any interview with the media must be orchestrated through their PR department.

LUNDEN: So most of the communication has been on the down-low. One Rockette, Phoebe Pearl, criticized the decision on Instagram. Later, she made her account private. Another spoke to Marie Claire magazine under a pseudonym. No current dancers would speak to NPR for this story, which didn't surprise former Rockette Lora Anderson.

LORA ANDERSON: And now you know why. I got spoke out once, and I couldn't dance for two weeks. I went to the building, and they took my ID and did not let me in. It's hard for one person to speak out against a multibillion-dollar company.

LUNDEN: We still don't know who that pseudonymous Rockette is, but we do know that she secretly recorded a meeting between the dancers and Madison Square Gardens chairman James Dolan. MSG has said that participation is voluntary, but in the meeting Dolan also stressed that participation was good for the brand. When a dancer asked if this was tolerating intolerance, Dolan reportedly replied quote, "yeah, in a way, I guess we are doing that." Former Rockette Autumn Withers...

WITHERS: Yeah. I mean, that just cuts right to my heart, telling these women to tolerate intolerance.

LUNDEN: MSG issued a statement saying, quote, "while Mr. Dolan stands behind everything he said during the meeting, no one in that room believed they were speaking publicly." Autumn Withers says to be fair, there are several Trump supporters among the ranks. And MSG says they've gotten more volunteers than slots to fill. Still, Withers thinks the dancers are between a rock and a hard place, and she says several of her friends have already declined.

WITHERS: If they elect to not participate, will they be rehired? If they do participate, is it kind of a covert way of guaranteeing that you will be rehired?

LUNDEN: And there's also been some pressure on social media - people writing shut up and dance, says Rosemary Novellino-Mearns.

NOVELLINO-MEARNS: I think they're afraid. I get that it is their job. And probably, if I was there, and they said, this is your job - you have to do it - I probably would do it, but I certainly wouldn't do it quietly.

LUNDEN: And in quiet resistance, some Rockettes are speaking loudly. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.