A Gig by Any Other Name: Thoughts on the Rockettes Inauguration Controversy

I’m sure most dancers (and people in general) have heard this story in some form. On Dec. 23 BroadwayWorld.com released an email from the American Guild of Variety Artists saying that the Radio City Rockettes were obligated to sign up to perform at President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20.

“I must remind you that you are all employees, and as a company, Mr. Dolan obviously wants the Rockettes to be represented at our country’s Presidential inauguration, as they were in 2001 & 2005. Any talk of boycotting this event is invalid, I’m afraid,” the email said.

As I read the emails, two questions popped into my head. The first, just as we are often asked to separate the art from the artist, can a working dancer separate a gig from its context? Furthermore, should directors, choreographers and other leaders in the dance world ask this of dancers and fire them if they refuse?

Are all gigs equal?

AGVA framed performing at the inauguration as just another job.  But is it ever really okay to accept a job, your own personal convictions be damned? One of my favorite bloggers Alison Green of Ask A Manager often talks about what she calls “philosophical alignment” and I think it’s pretty relevant to this post. Philosophical alignment means knowing what is expected of you by your employer and either deciding that you can adhere to what they want or that you may have the standing to convince them to try another way. So if you truly feel that you can separate yourself from whatever the gig is and just embody the choreography you were given, then I guess go for it. Or, if you think you have good enough reason to get out of doing a job or believe you can try to convince your employer not to do the performance at all, then that is also worth a try.

But this particular issue doesn’t simply end with the dancers, which brings me to my next question…

How much power should bosses/ADs/choreographers have?

The other (larger) half of this issue is AGVA and the Rockettes as an organization. Although the Rockettes released a statement saying that performing in the inauguration was optional, in the emails, full-time dancers were required to sign up, seemingly regardless of interest. It has also been reported that initially seasonal dancers were emailed about the performance asking for availability and full-time dancers, who are required to participate in any and all jobs outside of their pre-approved vacation time, were simply told the details of the performance, without the choice to opt out.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument that this was indeed a required performance. Is it the place of an Artistic Director/agent/choreographer/etc., to ignore or ask that other dancers and performers ignore their own personal convictions or be fired? It seems like a pretty unfair bargain for dancers to have to make, but since dance companies are run like businesses and have standards and procedures in place, as long as they remain within those standards, it would appear that they can compel the dancers (their employees) to do whatever they wish.

But this inauguration is no ordinary gig. In an interview with Marie Claire, an anonymous Rockette identified as Mary said, “We do a lot of events, but there have been no events that could cause trauma. And doing this would cause trauma for some people.”  A gig that a dancer feels can cause trauma or even could jeopardize their future down the line (e.g. dancing in a burlesque show when you one day hope to work with children), is different. Dance is already physically draining and often emotionally taxing. No dancer should feel compelled to potentially cause themselves trauma or personal distress, lest they lose their job.

There is also the problem of how this will look to the public–the people who pay to see the Rockettes dance. For decades and even now, the lack of diversity within the Rockettes (a dance company that didn’t allow black women until 1987) has been problematic, or to use Mary’s word “embarrassing.” No black Rockettes have signed up for the inauguration and Mary believes (correctly) that an all white group of dancers will send a startling and telling image to the world. People’s perceptions of dance companies are largely based on what they see on stage. To AGVA, it may really be just a job, but the world doesn’t know what goes on behind the scenes, or in the mind of a director. Reports have already surfaced that ticket sales to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which is having its final show dates this week, have dropped off significantly since the Rockettes announced their intent to perform at the inauguration. The impact down the line could be even more damaging since public opinion is fickle but strong and once it’s against you, recovery is a slow and sometimes futile process.

I won’t be watching the inauguration for personal reasons, but I am interested to see the conclusion of this story. Will the Rockettes high kick their personal feelings to the curb, will AGVA and the Rockettes organization have a change of heart, or will something totally different and unexpected occur?

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