Yes, It IS Possible to Build New Ballet Audiences in 2017
One of the toughest moments in the ballet world is watching a life-changing performance—and then looking around to see that only half the seats were filled to witness it. The discussion about how ballet can stay relevant and build new audiences has been going on for decades. However, these debates often end in speculation about the relevance of the product, rather than placing the onus on the marketing and sales crew.
But recently, a few U.S. ballet companies have done the latter, leading to full houses on weeknights and proving that revenue growth is possible: In 2016, Boston Ballet saw record-breaking ticket revenue and had the highest attendance in more than a decade. Colorado Ballet has exceeded revenue goals the last four seasons, with the 2016–17 season being the most successful to date.
Sell Like a Sports Team
Several companies have found success by adopting adjustable pricing scales similar to those used in professional sports, which prices tickets based on demand. For example, this may mean better seating at a matinee for less than you'd pay at an evening show. At Colorado Ballet, patron services and database manager Taylor Clark adjusts ticket prices daily. "If I'm really selling section C, I'll rescale the house to include more C seating," he says, in reference to the theater's price categories.
A recent Colorado Ballet program including Serenade had the highest attendance and revenue in the company's history. PC Mike Watson.
Clark has also lowered ticket prices and eliminated fees across the board. "We would rather have fuller houses at lower ticket prices," says Colorado Ballet public relations and marketing manager Sanya Andersen-Vie. Prices range from $30 to $155 in CB's primary venue, the 2,100-seat Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
To encourage patrons to buy early, Colorado Ballet has eliminated last-minute flash sales, instead offering the biggest deals early in the season. "We want subscribers to get the best discount," Andersen-Vie says. And though dropping initial prices and cutting down on discounts might seem counterintuitive, it actually raised income from ticket sales.
Strategic scheduling can also help. "We've found that once a show opens, the ticket sales really pick up, particularly for contemporary works," says Meredith Hodges, executive director at Boston Ballet. "Our hypothesis is that these shows are more reliant on social proof, like word of mouth or a review in The Boston Globe." But for shows that only run for a week or two, this brings a challenge: "Those things can't happen till after opening night, and just as you're building up this momentum, the show would be finished," she says. Boston Ballet's answer: running a contemporary and classical ballet at the same time, alternating them on a nightly basis, so that the contemporary show can stay open for three or even four weeks.
Make Your Brand Accessible
One of the most difficult parts of marketing dance is getting out of the "all dance, all the time" mindset. "Put yourself in the shoes of someone who goes to the ballet once or twice a year," says Julie Loignon, director of audience engagement at Ballet Austin, which recently ran extensive market research through a grant from the Wallace Foundation.
"The purpose of marketing used to be awareness," adds Hodges. "You had to let people know you were performing and where, and that was enough." But that approach doesn't cut it anymore—because for a lot of people, ballet is intimidating. If someone's going to invest in a ticket, they want to feel like they understand what they're seeing.
One way to do this is by replacing dance terms that mean nothing to the average person, like "mixed rep" or "triple bill," with words that are more universally understood, like "three one-act ballets."
Another is to communicate the "story" or meaning behind abstract work through content-focused marketing—that is, producing fun, educational behind-the-scenes videos, images and articles in-house. "People don't like ads that much, but they do like interesting videos and pictures," adds Hodges. Ballet Austin films a professional trailer for each ballet and projects it in the theater lobby, so that their audience can preview coming attractions.
During its 2015 Nutcracker, Ballet Austin played a trailer for a February 2016 mixed-rep show and noticed an increase in early ticket sales during that time. The company has also received audience feedback suggesting that exhibits highlighting an aspect of an upcoming show can help hesitant patrons feel ready to take the plunge into unknown repertory.
Mobile-friendly ticket-buying sites allow people to buy in the moment they feel inspired. Last year Boston Ballet revamped its site to make it easier to navigate and saw its online ticket sales for Nutcracker jump from 56 percent of total sales to 72 percent.
Create an Inviting Theater Experience
To target Millennials and create a "big event" feel, Ballet Austin designs a fun lighting treatment for the facade of the theater and hires a DJ to play popular music outside. "It creates a space that people can linger in, and it's a relatively inexpensive investment," says Loignon.
Ballet Austin also creates social media stations in the theater, designated spaces with a backdrop and themed props for people to take photos. Loignon uses what she calls a "social media aggregator," which lets her choose posts with the ballet's hashtag to project onto screens. This encourages that ever-valuable word-of-mouth advertising, because audience members love looking for their photos.
Audience feedback is essential—if nothing else, to help figure out which events aren't working. Ballet Austin used to host preview nights in the studio at no cost but, after analyzing data, realized that there was very little turnover between preview attendees and ticket buyers.
They also held rehearsal live-streams, but found that these audiences were limited to current patrons. Would-be audience members were confused about why there were no costumes, and what they should get out of seeing an unfinished product. Now, Ballet Austin uses production-quality footage in its videos whenever possible.
It takes time to see if new approaches are ultimately profitable. "Unlike a lot of businesses that have many opportunities to interact with customers, ballet companies only have maybe three or four each year," says Loignon.
A successful strategy stays confident in the product—great dance—and keeps in mind that the goal is always to highlight it. After each show, Ballet Austin sends patrons out the door with treats themed to the show, like candy canes for Nutcracker with a small promotional card for the next show attached. Loignon says, "We want to keep the afterglow going for a good 24 hours."
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
New York Live Arts opens its 2017-18 season with A Love Supreme, a revised work by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and collaborator Salva Sanchis. Known as a choreographer of pure form, pattern and musicality, De Keersmaeker can bring a visceral power to the stage without the use of narrative. She has taken this 2005 work to John Coltrane's famous jazz score of the same title and recast it for four young men of her company Rosas, giving it an infusion of new energy.
Photo by Anne Van Aerschot
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.