How NYCB draws in—and retains—coveted young audiences

The young Justin Peck has become a choreographic face of NYCB. His most recent ballet: Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. Photo by Paul Kolnick, courtesy NYCB.

A dapper young man wakes up in a mysterious drawing room to the vision of a beautiful woman in an evening gown with long, flowing hair. He runs after her passing presence; lights flicker, doors slam and chimes rattle before he opens a door and falls through a closet, landing in a clearing in the woods. The camera pans out, and it becomes clear that this is an advertisement, starring New York City Ballet’s Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette, for August Bournonville’s nearly 180-year-old ballet La Sylphide.

Ads like these are one of the ways NYCB has been making pushes to increase young audience engagement. Its 29 for $29 rush ticket deal, AOL On web series “city.ballet.” and Art Series programming, for which the company commissions cutting-edge visual artists and hosts post-ballet DJ parties with free beer, have been particularly successful. “The programming hasn’t changed much,” says arts consultant Sydney Skybetter, “but the marketing is light years away.”

It appears to be working. According to NYCB executive director Kathy Brown, 29 percent of the company’s audience is under the age of 45, which is 10 percent higher than the national average in the classically based performing arts. “The Art Series initiative was created to expand our younger demographic,” says Brown. “I think the success of these efforts is largely due to the fact that they are true to NYCB and its artistic mission, and not simply promotional gimmicks.” Over the past three seasons, more than 88 percent of Art Series ticket buyers were new to NYCB, and 22 percent of them have returned to see another show.

Both Brown and Skybetter believe that having a large social media profile with cutting-edge content is also part of a successful long-term arts marketing strategy. NYCB’s entices and educates potential new audiences, yet appeals to long-time fans. “NYCB is also using its board and funders, leveraging the longstanding relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker to produce ‘city.ballet.,’ ” says Skybetter. “Understanding that the value of good media is as important as a cash donation is key.”

And though Balanchine and Robbins make up the majority of the company’s rep, commissions like the collaborations of resident choreographer Justin Peck and singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens show that the company is putting its faith in a younger crowd, perhaps this year more than ever: On September 30, NYCB will premiere ballets by Peck and other 20-somethings, corps member Troy Schumacher, National Ballet of Canada’s Robert Binet and San Francisco Ballet’s Myles Thatcher.

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