Arts, Play, Slide Show — January 25, 2012 12:49 am

From Tutus and Tiaras to Ballet and Beer

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In an effort to reach younger audiences, ballet companies across the country are retooling their image from old and stuffy to contemporary and hip.

Members of Cincinnati Ballet rehearse for a performance. Photo by Ian Johnson.

 

It’s opening night of the last production of Cincinnati Ballet’s 2010-2011 season, and the excitement in the air is palpable. Audience members file into the Aronoff Theater in Cincinnati, trying to locate their seat numbers, jostling past people already seated, and finally settle into place. As the latecomers hustle to their seats, the room fills with a low hum as people read their programs and chat with each other.

Victoria Morgan, artistic director and CEO of Cincinnati Ballet, gracefully steps on stage to introduce three world premieres that the company is about to perform for its program “Infamous Love Songs.” The petite, pixie-like woman welcomes the nearly full house and asks everyone to fill out a survey tucked inside each program. The multiple-choice questionnaire inquires about the audience member’s age, ethnicity, level of education, marital status, number of children and their ages. The room buzzes as people shuffle in their seats, extracting pens to answer the questions: How did you first learn about Cincinnati Ballet? How many Cincinnati Ballet performances have you attended overall?  Which Cincinnati Ballet performances did you attend during the 2010-2011 season?

Surveys like this one are helping Cincinnati Ballet executives evaluate whether their company’s performances are reaching target audiences—which is particularly important, given Cincinnati Ballet’s recent efforts to “re-brand” its image and appeal to a larger and younger demographic. The survey helps the staff learn more about the members of the audience so they can continue to meet their customers’ needs. “We all have realized that we have to be relevant today,” says Terry Honebrink, group relations coordinator for Cincinnati Ballet. “If all we did were Swan Lake,’ ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ we would die off.”

Like many ballet companies, the Cincinnati Ballet hopes to attract younger audiences to performances. Photo by Ian Johnson.

Cincinnati Ballet is not alone: Across the country, ballet companies are trying to appeal to larger and potentially younger audiences; for many, it’s about economic survival. And to some extent, ballet’s long history might be working against it in a modern culture that is all about fast, high-tech entertainment. First developed in the 17th century France during the reign of Louis XIV, ballet sometimes struggles to remain relevant in modern society.

So ballet companies are continually evolving and experimenting with combining ballet with other forms of dance. For example, Cincinnati Ballet’s “Infamous Love Songs” was a compilation of three choreographers’ works—each emphasizing the lines and movements used in ballet, while combining it with modern dance. None of these pieces of choreography featured dancers decked out in pink tights, with their hair slicked back in the proverbial ballet bun, as they would in traditional ballets. And while old-school ballet fans might find the modern costumes to be too revealing—the female dancers in “Infamous Love Songs” wore sheer black shirtdresses pulled over what looked like bras and panties—costumes like these are becoming more common in contemporary performances.

In fact, ballet’s evolution is often played out through modern costuming choices. George Balanchine, who was constantly pushing ballet’s boundaries during his lifetime, choreographed many works for New York City Ballet in which the dancers merely wore tights and leotards—which are very revealing on stage. Famous Balanchine ballets such as “Agon,” “The Four Temperaments” and “Symphony in Three Movements,” all feature male and female dancers wearing only leotards and tights. Choreographer Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet, has created several pieces in which dancers wear skimpy costumes. Welch’s “Tu Tu,” which he choreographed in 2003, has the female dancers dressed in tutus and bras and the males dressed solely in booty shorts. On Houston Ballet’s website, Welch describes the ballet as being “a playful, humorous look at classical ballet. ‘Tu Tu’ is tart and very tongue-in-cheek.”

However, some audience members still want to see the classical, traditional ballets, rather than the newer adaptations. To ensure that audience members will attend performances and keep coming back for more, ballet companies must make sure their seasons offer both classical and contemporary ballet programs. That way, the company can serve those who appreciate traditional ballet—“La Bayadère,” “Les Syphides,” “Don Quixote,” “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet,” to name a few—while attracting new faces in the crowd who are more receptive to contemporary works, like those choreographed by the likes of Balanchine, Welch, William Foresythe and Trey McIntire.

A dancer prepares for rehearsal. Photo by Stephanie Kitchens.

In addition to offering more diverse types of dance and costuming, ballet companies are trotting out new outreach strategies to attract audiences. “A lot of companies are using social media to attract a larger and younger audience,” says Jennifer Stahl, senior editor of Pointe Magazine. “ABT [American Ballet Theater] often assigns a corps member to tweet or video blog their tour to engage audience members. Some companies are even using deal-a-day sites like Groupon to offer steep discounts on tickets to fill up their theaters at last minute and capture a technologically savvy—which usually means younger—audience.” Social media is a quick, easy and direct way to connect with younger audiences. Virtually every ballet company is now on Facebook and Twitter, at the bare minimum.

Although social media is becoming an integral part of local art scenes, actively engaging in the community is also essential to remain viable, Cincinnati Ballet’s Honebrink says. Cincinnati Ballet has advertised through billboards placed around Cincinnati that feature dancers in stark contrast from the background, creating a dramatic visual effect. Visibility in the community has helped the company develop longstanding local ties with the public.

And even more impressively, Cincinnati Ballet dancers have literally been taking their message to the streets: The dancers started staging performances in city neighborhoods to gain more exposure and give people the opportunity to see Cincinnati Ballet without the hassle of going downtown. “We had a performance at the College of Mount St. Joseph [a Cincinnati-based private college] back in the spring and it was wonderfully received,” Honebrink says. “That was the full company performing sections from shows from this season. We also have our trainees and CB II’s [Cincinnati Ballet II dancers] doing lots of outreach programs all over the city. They have performed at schools, senior and community centers, libraries, businesses, stores—anywhere we can lay a floor or clear a large enough area they can perform.”

For outreach programs like these, ballet companies often must perform to recorded music due to lack of funds or space to facilitate live music. Sometimes, though, the ballet is able to acquire live music. The Cincinnati dancers have performed “Peter and the Wolf” in several non-traditional venues through a partnership with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Cincinnati Ballet’s coordination with the CSO has proven to be a valuable collaboration; the majority of their stage performances feature a live orchestra, which many mid-size ballet companies can’t afford.

Creating partnerships with local non-profit and for-profit organizations are also enabling ballet companies to attract wider audiences. Stahl notes that many companies hold “Beer and Ballet” events, as well as cocktail parties where young professionals can mingle with dancers. The general public gets a chance to be toe-to-toe with professional dancers and learn about dance in a nontraditional way. Plus, many companies offer discounts for younger people through Blackbook, a nationwide company that coaches newly hired employees in cities and helps them become connected with their jobs, company and community. As a client of Blackbook, Cincinnati Ballet benefits from the publicity with new young professionals in the area.

Another ballet company that engages in innovative partnerships is Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, which has been highly successful in reaching younger audiences. For the release of the film “Black Swan,” Joffrey Ballet established a relationship with Equinox Fitness, creating ballet-inspired fitness programs. Participants learn how to plié, tendu and twirl, and then are offered deals to attend performances to watch professionals do similar movements in shows. Unlike many ballet companies, Joffrey Ballet is not specifically seeking out a younger demographic, although it does seem to attract them, according to Christopher Clinton Conway, the company’s executive director. “I think the difference between us and others is that we don’t create a different identity to attract young people, because that comes across as disingenuous,” he says. Conway believes that creating a new brand is not a sustainable practice, although it may deliver initial results.

However, intentional rebranding does work for other companies. Boston Ballet, one of the top ballet companies in America, has orchestrated a rebranding effort to attract new audiences of 20-somethings. The company successfully rebranded and launched a new website in 2009, and then created a new event series called “OFFSTAGE.” “OFFSTAGE is the perfect opportunity for Bostonians to introduce themselves to Boston Ballet and to connect with the city,” wrote Tonya Chen Mezrich, co-chair of Boston Ballet’s program for young professionals, Young Partners, in a press release. “Beyond the incredible dancing on stage, the world of ballet is all about the glamour of the theatre, the costuming, and the social experience after the performance. OFFSTAGE will be can’t-miss events for young professionals who are interested in great art and having a great time.”

Photo by Ian Johnson.

In a similar vein, Ballet San Jose unveiled new branding efforts last season after experiencing financial difficulties in recent years. Lee Kopp, the company’s marketing director, says the younger demographic has been responding to the new branding materials, which he described as very clean with sans serif fonts and crisp photography. One of the most inventive ways this company has attempted to engage a younger audience is by launching a college program that makes performances more affordable for students—even enabling them to snag some of the best seats in the house. A typical performance ticket costs $100, but through this program, a patron covers $90, enabling students to purchase two tickets to any Friday or Saturday night performance for $10 each. This program has been highly successful: It sold 1,400 tickets to students from 56 different colleges, and a significant amount of those students returned to the theater through the program.

During Ballet San Jose’s 2010-2011 season, single-ticket sales soared, especially for “Swan Lake.” “[With] ‘Black Swan’ the movie being so popular, we got a lot of young people buying,” Kopp says. “Add to that the guest appearance of Carlos Acosta as Siegfried for two performances, and we got lots of people from San Francisco buying—and that never happens. We also had a few buyers from Canada, Germany and UK. Acosta is amazing.”

Photo by Stephanie Kitchens.

Increasing ticket sales reflect a positive turn for ballet companies that have been struggling with adapting to current times and maintaining an audience during the recession. “But we also found that the economy is picking up,” Kopp says.  “People are buying the expensive seats first, not the rear balcony. Every show sold out every $100 ticket before any other section sold out.”

This is uplifting news for ballet companies and ballet lovers alike. As curtains open and close on ballet performances across the country this season, only time will tell how successfully these outreach programs and modern approaches to the art form will be at growing audiences and appealing to a younger demographic as they jeté into the future. 

 

 

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