Colorado Ballet, PC Mike Watson

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."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021