The ballet season after BS premiered, NYCB and ABT both pricked up their ears and decided it would be an opportune time to perform Swan Lake. They were right, and actually there were sold out performances. Obviously, this is a short-term solution. Natalie Portman is NYCB’s honorary spring gala chair this season and so far the reaction I’ve heard can be summed up as “eh.” This brings us to the big question: can ballet companies take this upswing in interest and translate it into new ballet converts before everyone stops caring? If so, how?
On March 22 The Royal Ballet did something absolutely brilliant: they live streamed their entire day of rehearsals. They also included interviews with dancers, musicians, the artistic director and costume/scenery archivists as well as archived rehearsal videos. The interviewers even asked questions from people watching from Facebook and Twitter. THAT is how you advertise. I didn’t care too terribly much about the Royal Ballet until that day. Sure I knew who Cojocaru and Kobborg were (again, guest stars), and Marianela Nunez, of course, but beyond that… not a thing. Now I consider myself a fan. I watched all day, and it was fascinating. Yes, I had to do work at this thing I call my “job” where I get “paid” so I can, you know, live, but the RB was in my ear all day long, even if I was forced to use the computer screen to do other things. I saw rehearsals for Alice in Wonderland, Polyphonia, a new Liam Scarlett ballet, Sweet Violets, as well as Pagoda and Romeo and Juliet. (Now I really want to play with swords.) After seeing the Alice rehearsal I immediately bought the DVD on Amazon and am so excited to watch it. As an aside, it’s been like two weeks. Where the heck is my DVD, Amazon?! The day concluded with an exclusive look at a rehearsal of Wayne McGregor’s new collaboration with musician Mark Ronson, Carbon Life, followed by a Q&A session. The lesson that should be taken away from all this? The program made me sincerely care about this company. And there it is: the key to my generation’s collective heart is, apparently, access. In a world of Facebook and Twitter, the idea that ballet is a world unto itself simply can’t fly anymore. On one hand, this makes me a bit sad. I love the mystical aspect of ballet, the idea that dancers are just so far removed from this world that they could never be touched by something as mundane as YouTube is beautiful, romantic and sad (Sylphide anyone?). But I have to say, Ashley Bouder posting her backstage Instagram pics on Facebook and laughing about her falls on Twitter makes me care more about her; it makes me want to buy tickets to see her, and more tellingly I have. Programs like this make ballet accessible to the unwashed, unlearned (aka uninitiated) masses. They make it far less scary, and they make what seemed to be a boring leisure activity reserved only for rich snobs, absolutely enthralling. THIS WORKS. I want to see almost everything they rehearsed, I want to follow them avidly, and I really hope they tour here so I can see them in person. I would even consider taking a side trip to London if I could get tickets.
That said, let’s talk about attempts to appeal to a new and younger audience that do not work. All of them can be summed up in a single word: pandering. Let’s begin with a general example. You’re a painter and you really want people to look at, appreciate and buy your paintings because hey, it’s art but you still need money to survive. Do you A) explain to people why you paint the way you do, what it means to you, and a bit about your technique or B) start to paint pictures of bunnies because, really, who doesn’t love bunnies? The answer is A, right? So why, why in God’s name would any company try to sell a ballet based on anything other than the quality of the ballet itself? I’m going to start with McGregor’s new piece, since I just finished watching that rehearsal. Now, since I haven’t seen it, I can’t say if it’s good or bad, it may even be great! However, most of the marketing surrounding Carbon Life has been about the costumes and music, so I feel pretty justified in saying that I do not care, at all, that the costumes were designed by Gareth Pugh. Sorry. I also don’t care that Mark Ronson did the music. Since they’ re trying so very hard to be young and cool by using a punk designer and popular music, the audience might initially be large and maybe even made up exclusively of 20 year olds; I don’t know what’s going to happen. What I do know is if the piece is bad overall, no ungodly fashion budget will save it. None. Because here’s the flip side to this social media thing: if something is bad, everyone will know in a matter of seconds. Personally, I don’t want to see this ballet. The choreography looked like everything McGregor has already done (and everything that Forsythe did before that).
Another great example of really obvious pandering is NYCB’s recent flop Ocean’s Kingdom. Music was by Sir Paul McCartney (they got a freakin’ Beatle!) with costumes by Stella McCartney. Choreography was by Peter Martins, of course, but somehow no one cared about that part. To very quickly sum up: the music was obvious, the costumes were cracked out, and the choreography was utterly forgettable. I wrote a review if you’re interested which you can see here, but really, all you have to do is watch this and you’ll have an idea (fair warning, I will use literally any excuse to show that clip because it makes me laugh so hard I cry… I am apparently 5 years old. However, it really does work here if you check out Daniel Ulbricht’s outfit ).
To be clear, I’m not against costumes, and I don’t think that every ballet should be danced in a black leotard and pink tights. If I thought for a second that I could get away with it, I would wear a tutu to go grocery shopping, or more accurately, just never take it off. I spent weeks looking for Sylvia’s dress for a special event (still looking, if you find it please message me. I will love you forever). When costumes (and music and setting) actually enhance the ballet and not distract from it, those extra details can make a production go from good to absolutely magical. Take the Paris Opera Ballet’s recent production of La Source: Jean Guillaume Bart’s choreography was riveting on its own, but when you add Christian Lacroix’s costumes and the set design… just wow. Every aspect of the ballet, choreography, music, costumes and scenery merged beautifully to create the finished product. You don’t even have to stick with tutus! Look at John Neumeier’s version of Sylvia: You can dress your nymphs in leather vests and helmets and put your goddess in a tuxedo; it gets the point across without being flashy and the dancers can move. Costumes are important and ideally help tell the story and set the mood, but they should never be the point. We have fashion shows for that.
So finally, here’s what I think needs to happen if we want to keep this ballet wave going: education. If we can show why ballet merits attention, I honestly think people will go and appreciate it, but once there’s an audience there has to be great ballet to watch. Essentially: explain why ballet is awesome and then prove it.