On Ballet and Pop Culture Part II: Occupy the Ballet, We Are the 2.5% (No, really, please buy a ticket)

The spike we explored in the last post comes at a very convenient time for ballet companies. The US is still in a recession which means fewer people are willing to shell out the cash to spend an evening watching ballet and even less willing to donate hard earned money that could be going towards things like rent and food. Less money coming in means that ballet companies, which are overwhelmingly dependent upon donations from their audiences to function, are desperately trying to increase their fan base. To make matters even more difficult, they need to increase their fan base among the young. According to The National Endowment for the Arts’ Arts 2008 Audience Participation Report, “Performing arts attendees are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult.  Since 1982 [when the study began], young adult (18–24-year-old) attendance rates have declined significantly for jazz, classical music, ballet, and non-musical plays “(NEA 5).  To be specific, in 2008 only 2.5% of young adults attended the ballet (down 36% from 1982, when 3.5% of adults in that category attended. EEK!)

This report is from 2008; BS premiered in 2010 and was nominated for 5 Oscars and started the pop culture spike we’ve just talked about. Compare this to The Turning Point, which came out in 1977 and earned 11 Oscars nominations. The age of the average ballet patron in 1977? 33  (NEA 17). To be fair, that number is well within the median age of the American population at the time, so it’s not as if The Turning Point actually caused a huge upswing in ballet attendance; the patrons were already there. The movie was a reaction to ballet’s existing popularity, but what made people pay attention in the first place? Russians.

In 1961 Rudolph Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union and made the world start paying attention. His partnership with Margot Fonteyn is legendary, but I’m not going to go into Nureyev’s dance career (you know it, and if you don’t, here), this is just a very quick sum up of his presence in pop culture. When he wasn’t busy dancing, he was known to socialize with Gore Vidal, Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol among others. In 1971, Nureyev appeared on episode 213 of The Muppet Show. Up to this point, the show had struggled to attract celebrity guests but after the success of Swine Lake among other sketches the show’s popularity skyrocketed. He also starred in the 1972 documentary I Am a Dancer.  It’s fair to think of Nureyev as ballet’s reigning bad boy of the era. So at this point (early 70s), the public at large is pretty interested in ballet, making the atmosphere ripe for another ballet phenomenon. With impeccable timing, Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the USSR on June 29, 1974 while on tour in Canada.  After a brief stint with The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, he moved to ABT and was a principal dancer there until 1978 when he hopped across the plaza to NYCB. Box office sales soared, and his performances were consistently sold out.  Public fascination with Baryshnikov is well documented. On May 19, 1975 he was on the cover of Time Magazine, which dubbed him “Ballet’s new idol.” He parlayed this success into movies with The Turning Point (1977), White Nights (1985), and Dancers (1987) among others. Audiences that had never cared about ballet before suddenly wanted to see the star, and all they had to do was spend $30 on a ballet ticket.

Hoping against hope that imported guest stars would continue to sell tickets when their own seem to flop, companies like American Ballet Theatre currently rely on a rotating panel of who’s who in the ballet world: Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova (Bolshoi, now both with the Mikhailovsky), Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru (Royal), and Polina Semionova (Berlin) were all guest stars at ABT last year, and all of them are returning this season. While this does attract patrons and I certainly love the idea of sharing dancers and international collaboration (Kings of the Dance, YES!), the system does absolutely nothing to get new audience members into the theater, and it damages the company in the long run by not supporting and promoting its own company members. Unless companies like ABT want to become totally dependent on foreign imports, they need to start nurturing the talent at home.

So if all you need to create a ballet mania are ballet stars and movies, why didn’t we have a surge in the early 2000’s when Center Stage and Save The Last Dance came out? Well for one, Baryshnikov and Nureyev were already celebrities in the ballet world thanks to their very public defections from the USSR. The movies, articles and TV appearances added to their fame, which in turn added to ballet’s general popularity, but simply making a movie about ballet isn’t necessarily going jump start a specific dancer’s career. Look at Amanda Schull: poor Jody Sawyer is doing McDonald’s commercials now! Sasha Radetsky is still stuck as a soloist at ABT (a crime against ballet) and Ethan Steifel is mostly known because he just accepted the artistic director position at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and those who don’t know that fact still think of him as Cooper Nielson. What those movies did cause is an upswing in dance movies like Save the Last Dance 2, Step Up, (and its three sequels) and, of course, a parody of all the ballet meets hip-hop movies, Dance Flick. The genre even got a mention on Family Guy (sorry for the terrible video quality on that one, but YouTube was not cooperating). So how could Black Swan avoid that trap and cause all this brouhaha? Well, Black Swan was critically acclaimed, had excellent actors, and a much hyped lesbian scene that convinced even guys who hated the very idea of a ballet movie to give it a chance. Center Stage, if we’re being honest, was a pretty cheesy movie (with some admittedly great one-liners).

Here’s why I think I’m right about all this: David Hallberg. If you watched that interview with Stephen Colbert that I posted earlier (and you really really should), then you know that Hallberg is the probably the biggest ballet star since Baryshnikov. He’s the first EVER westerner to be invited to join the Bolshoi, and having seen his performance as Rothbart in ABT’s Swan Lake, I can assure you that he is simply magnificent to behold. My jaw dropped. Literally. That combination of talent and work does exist in the US; all we need to do is support it. So really, please, go buy a ticket for the ballet this season and drag your friends along for the ride. You won’t be sorry!

Next time: Great, so now what do we do?

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