bart

Saratoga, the NYCB, and ways to market ballet

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In Sunday's Links, Mme. Hermine posted an article in which Paul Bray of the Albany Times Union proposed several ways that the Saratoga Performing Arts Center could make more of its long-time association with New York City Ballet, the SPAC's resident company for part of each summer.

http://www.timesunion.com/AspStories/story...wsdate=9/9/2007

This summer I despaired at the number of empty seats at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (a 10 percent decrease in attendance from the previous year) for the dazzling performances of the New York City Ballet. Presenters of ballet and other classical arts face challenging times with declining audiences. But as Botstein at Bard demonstrates, challenges can be surmounted. SPAC should and can be a cultural powerhouse. It especially should pop during the three weeks of ballet in July.

The City Ballet is about excellence wrapped in the beauty of artfully choreographed movement and music. SPAC and our region should also be about excellence. For three weeks each year, we and visitors from around the world should fill the theater and lawn for each performance of the finest in ballet.

Here are three ways to make SPAC pop in July: better packaging, better understanding of how to attract an audience; and getting our economic developers to understand that it is all about excellence.

This article raises issues that are important to Saratoga and the NYCB -- but also to the future of ballet in America in general. Are there new or better ways for companies to create awareness of their work? How about ways to expand audiences?

What do the NYCB fans and SPAC regulars think about this article? And its recommendations?

Are there any lessons to be learned by other ballet companies -- and summer festivals -- which may be faced with unpredictable and even declining audiences for some of their programs?

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Are there any lessons to be learned by other ballet companies -- and summer festivals -- which may be faced with unpredictable and even declining audiences for some of their programs?

Thanks for bringing up this topic bart. I know it would be dangerous to give an impulsive answer to those questions, but God, is so frustrating to go to half empty theatres with absent courtain calls ballet performances! Believe me, at least here in Miami this situation get's at horrific levels. Currently , we're having our infamous International Miami Ballet Festival, and i really have no words to describe the disaster so far. The magic word for a huge part of the success of ballet companies and festivals, in my opinion, is one: PR.

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Thanks for posting that link for discussion, bart. I'm not part of the SPAC audience, but certainly have seen both programming and ballet audiences decline at Wolf Trap in recent years. In the mid-1970s, NYCB brought its entire Ravel Festival there. (It was the year before I discovered ballet, and I don't know how the audience was.) I remember the Return of the Kirov in the mid-1980s -- even the lawn was sold out. Then it nosedived in the 90s. One of the administrative people there told me he thought it was that ticket prices had gone up and up, and he begged them to cut the prices, the theory being if you had 1500 unsold seats at $50, wouldn't it be better to sell $3000 seats at $25. I don't know why he didn't win that argument (and I can't prove it was ticket prices; the Washington Opera sells out at $250 a single orchestra seat these days).

Crisrtian, yes, PR is important, but with the domination of the media by pop culture, it's very hard to do. 24 hour a day cable news, and not even 10 minutes a day for the arts. Oodles of time, of course, for Paris and Britney. It's dismaying -- and interesting -- to me how far America has diverged from Europe now. The arts are part of their regular TV shows, news as well as specials, and seems to be more of people's lives.

That's the bad news. Back to bart's question: how can SPAC, and other venues, boost attendance?

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Back to bart's question: how can SPAC, and other venues, boost attendance?

Well, how about trying to attract young people?...Last night, at one of the half empty Ballet Festival performances, i was talking to a lady who was sitting in a desk in from of an enormous pile of gloosy festival-related flyers that were going to be thrown out after the show. She ended up being part of the event staff. I told her that i hadn't seen any publicity of the Festival around my school,(Miami Dade College),which is a super big well known institution with half dozen huge campuses all spread out around Miami. I ended up taking the flyers with me and i'm planning on displaying them in in my school library next tuesday when i go to classes. So, how about just that? If they spent the money already on the flyers, why not going around Colleges, Universities, high schools and the like to try to target that type of public, students and teachers...? PR doesn't have to be always about connecting with the big media, but it should be more than giving discount tickets to geriatric/nursing home produced groups, (and thank God that at least we have those.!)

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I love the idea of outreach to younger audiences. But there has to be pricing that allows for this to work. I don't know the latest prices for NYCB at Saratoga, but an article from the previous season mentions ticket prices of $20 to $59, with lawn seating at $15. This season's gala fundraiser for NYCB, which I assume had higher prices, was poorly attended according to the press.

Is this a lot of money? It depends on one's income, the quality of seating in each category, and just what is meant by "the lawn." Certainly an aging audience -- as tends to be the case nowadays with ballet -- will be less likely to choose the lawn alternative than they would have been in the glory days of the 70s and early 80s.

Price alone does not explain discretionary consumer purchases like this. Consumers tend to have a highly individualized sense of which activities are more "valuable" to them than others. We on Ballet Talk obviously value ballet tickets -- and, generally, expences for other arts as well -- quite highly, and are willing to sacrifice other things for them.

But NYCB at SPAC can't rely only -- or even primarily -- on people like us. There has to be a sustained effort to make other consumers, especially those who are upwardly mobile, to give up certain kinds of discretionary spending (golf tournaments? high-priced rock concerts? trips to the casino? $100 dinners for two?) in order to attend ballet at whatever price. That requires, as Christian mentions, PR. It also requires a sustained and publicized program of public education and changing consumers' ieas of what is valuable to them.

Who is the audience for NYCB at Saratoga? Manhattanites on vacation? Locals for whom the summer arts season is the only artistic game in town? I assume someone at SPAC has asked these questions and knows something about the demographics of recent audiences. But do they know anything about the potential audience and how to reach them and persuade them to take a chance on a different way to spend their time and money?

Maybe all of this has been tried? I don't know. Maybe Bray's suggestions have been tried as well. Again, I don't know.

It would be great to hear from those who do know something about the NYCB / SPAC situation today.

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I love the idea of outreach to younger audiences. But there has to be pricing that allows for this to work.

Of course, bart. And if you take the fact that for the cheapest ticket here in Miami going at $18 ( with the student discount ), what you'll get is an anticipated dissapointing performance, (in terms of organization), with no parking lot for your car, (we have no public transportation in this city) , and then having to deal with chaotic traffic after the performance, then... :wub:

But back to Saratoga and the NYCB, any similarities...?

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I have never been to SPAC so i do not know of the other programs being presented there.Do they present other ballet companies there aside from NYCB?

Regarding the dwindling audience at Saratoga,i know this is sacrilegious,but is it possible that the Saratogoans would want to see something different during the summer season?

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Regarding the dwindling audience at Saratoga,i know this is sacrilegious,but is it possible that the Saratogoans would want to see something different during the summer season?

I had had the same thought, bingham, and hope Saratoga regulars will chime in here. 25, 30 years ago, NYCB at Saratoga was a hot ticket. New Yorkers, I'm told, would go there for their summer vacation, and it was cool for the town to have the company because it had such buzz. (And because they wanted to see great dance, of course!) But it's a different time, and perhaps that audience has moved on, and the new audience wants to have fun.

Another change that I've lived through is "opera houses" and places like Wolf Trap (can't speak to SPAC) started programming musicals, at first, we were told, as a rarity to have one thing that was profitable to make up for the "high art" events that didn't sell. Well, people like musicals, and there are probably more people who would want to see "Rent" than the "Ring Cycle." (And lots more that want rock concerts and football, and then why not do what the Romans do and go for human sacrifice? That always drew a big crowd. But I digress.....) The occasional musical became months of musicals, and brought in a new audience, but one that, it seems, doesn't easily crossover to ballet and concerts.

Edited by Alexandra
added sentence at the end

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This summer and last, I really wanted to make a trip up to Saratoga to support NYCB's presence there. But I couldn't find a bus or train home! I'm not politically committed enough to pay for a hotel room, I'm afraid.

The NYCB Guild used to send a bus up once each summer. I haven't heard of them doing that for years now. If they do, maybe they only advertise it to guild members.

My guess is, offer an 11:30 pm bus from Saratoga to NYC, and you'll have, over the course of the summer, a few hundred more seats in seats -- or the lawn.

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Great idea about a bus back to NYC after the night's performance, carbro! I still miss the NYCB Guild weekend trip to Saratoga, too. It was my introduction to the spa city and I fell in love with it. This was the first year in a long time that I didn't get there on my own -- the reason being my advancing age and the accompanying aches and pains. But I believe that if that weekend trip had still existed, with those dedicated Guild volunteers to take care of us, I would have gone.

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25, 30 years ago, NYCB at Saratoga was a hot ticket. New Yorkers, I'm told, would go there for their summer vacation, and it was cool for the town to have the company because it had such buzz. (And because they wanted to see great dance, of course!) But it's a different time, and perhaps that audience has moved on, and the new audience wants to have fun.

That's sad. Stars and Stripes is fun but Agon is something else altogether, and combined they're as exhilarating as any musical. (I know I'm preaching to the converted here). The NYC audience, at least in substantial, season supporting numbers, never moved on, but concentrated, and in so doing reaped the dividends -- I guess we're once again down to the dearth of great living choreographers choreographing and overseeing their old choreography so that season after season it has the force of something new and living.

Pardon the interpolation from another thread:

I will say that the Fokine program did do well here, a few seasons ago.[ . .] most of the comments I heard as I prowled the lobby at intermissions were quite favorable.

Prowling, eh? And you look so innocent!

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This summer and last, I really wanted to make a trip up to Saratoga to support NYCB's presence there. But I couldn't find a bus or train home! I'm not politically committed enough to pay for a hotel room, I'm afraid.

The NYCB Guild used to send a bus up once each summer. I haven't heard of them doing that for years now. If they do, maybe they only advertise it to guild members.

My guess is, offer an 11:30 pm bus from Saratoga to NYC, and you'll have, over the course of the summer, a few hundred more seats in seats -- or the lawn.

Guild Weekends stopped about 10 years ago -- they didn't make enough money for the work that they required from the Guild staff.

Wouldn't an 11:30 bus get back to NYC at around 2:30 a.m.? I can't think of who would like to step down to the Manhattan streets from a central point to then make their way home from there.........

re: Marketing and reaching new audiences -- look at how long it took to build a sizable regular audience for NYCB, and how long it took Balanchine to educate them..... And marketing today is totally different -- you might need sexy bodies to draw attention. I actually think that one of the main things needed to build an audience is arts education in the schools. I know that SAB does have terrific outreach programs now, and that Jacques d'Amboise is doing great things to get kids excited about dance (not so much ballet). I remember as a little girl in P.S. 33 in Queens that the dancers of the NYCB danced in our auditorium at an "Assembly." I think that Melissa Hayden was among the group, and a woman whose first name was "Pat," and whose last name I knew just up to a minute ago. That (and my mother taking me to City Center) planted the seed.

Then there are the financial concerns: with NYCB, in the early days, the dancers were not well paid, the administration was not well paid, there was no huge fundraising machine, eating up funds to raise some more -- other than Lincoln of course. The needs, rules and approaches are totally different.

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As far as I know, and correct me if I'm wrong, NYCB has premiered only two ballets at Saratoga, Coppelia on July 17, 1974 and The Steadfast Tin Soldier on July 30,1975. That was over 30 years ago. If Saratoga is as important to NYCB historically and emotionally as they claim then perhaps another premiere would help attendance? Or even a major revival showing at SPAC first? Something that says to the Saratoga audience "you are so important to us that we are going to do this........".

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Perky's post raises issues of just how far NYCB is committed to its Saratoga residence in artistic terms. One of the suggestions made by Paul Bray in his article relates to this:

Begin by making the ballet's residency the center piece of the Saratoga Dance Festival to be as world renown as festivals in Edinburgh, Spoleto and Salzburg. The City Ballet is world class. In July, whoever thinks about ballet should think Saratoga.

Potential partners like Skidmore, the Dance Museum and regional performing arts venues should be enlisted to coordinate efforts and offer dance and other related performances to complement the main stage. Some hoopla in the state park and on Broadway in Saratoga Springs could add to the festive atmosphere. Make it festive and Saratoga becomes a New York state showcase and the dance place to be in July.

I know that there's a competing dance festival not that far away at Jacob's Pillow, but doesn't this seem worth discussion?

Another point -- this one about NYCB fans and Saratoga.

Despite the fact that the largest percentage of Ballet Talk posts are on the NYCB threads, there have been only a few comments on Saratoga from NYCB regulars. (And I thank those of you who did post.)

At the risk of raising some hackles, is it possible that the core NYCB audience -- the one that fills the NYS Theater for the Manhattan season -- is basically unconcerned about Saratoga's place in the company's life?

This is a company which has virtually dropped out of its former national and internation touring commitments, and which shows little interest in producing a video record of its work that would be available to a world-wide audience.

Maybe the NYCB management is really, basically, happy just to perform in Manhattan and considers Saratoga a kind of summer working vacation, a vestige of some distant past?

And maybe their core fans agree?

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Bart,

I couldn't agree with you more. There is little to no direct mail ad campaign to season ticket holders that NYCB performs in Saratoga, I do not ever remember seeing ads in newspapers. I can only surmise that the management thinks of Saratoga as a short season for the residents of New York State, Adarondeck region. I have been a season ticket holder for most of my adult life (well, I stopped once I was able to get free tickets available to SAB students and parents :-) and never knew that they performed upstate (about 3-4 hrs north of the city) until my son was at SAB and was asked to come up one summer to perform in Sleeping Beauty. I had absolutely no idea that NYCB performed during the summer.

Also, unless the Nutcracker is being performed, or something like R+J, there are many many evenings of empty seats at the NYS Theatre.

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A few years ago, the NY Philharmonic asked NY State to help develop a summer location for the NYP. It never went anywhere for many reasons. They realized a suburban location within a few hours drive is key. Saratoga is too far for day trippers, and has to compete with the Berkshires (tanglewood and jacob's pillow).

My day trips to Tanglewood, I've noticed my group was the youngest there. Young people are not exposed to culture as much.

As Nutcracker season approaches, I'm curious if companies have tried to use the nutcracker franchise to grow their audience?

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As Nutcracker season approaches, I'm curious if companies have tried to use the nutcracker franchise to grow their audience?

...I have my hesitation on the supposed winning outcome of this strategy... :)

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Here's a little stream of consiousness...

I grew up in Saratoga in the 50's and 60's and spent a lot of time at SPAC. Although it was always a NYS institution, it seemed to be actually conceived of and directed by a few wealthy individuals, (Vanderbilts, Whitneys) who were friends of Nelson Rockefeller. This is not bad. Without Governor Rockefeller we probably wouldn't have Lincoln Center, either. These people had the rare combination of vision, power, money and artistic sensibility to create something like SPAC (sounds a bit like Lincoln Kirstein, too). I think we lack these leaders today.

And SPAC was only part of what Saratoga created in the early 1960s. The flat track was a major other part. We had horses and ballet in Saratoga (and the Philadelphia Orchestra, too) so the entire summer in Saratoga had a very different feel the first year SPAC opened and for years after. Lots of my friends' parents would rent their houses for a month to the 'horse people' and move to their cottages in the Adirondacks. Not so many horse people rent houses these days, and the NYCB season is down to less than three weeks. I think the new and exciting feel is gone and SPAC has grown plain.

I remember seeing Balanchine's Jewels at SPAC as my first ballet, and thought all ballet looked like that. Needless to say, I kept coming back. As far as finding a new audience, I quickly found out that the ballet was an effective place to take a first date. My high school buddies realized the same thing, so the ballet had an instant audience of teenagers on the lawn, some of whom were even paying attention to the stage.

So SPAC's troubles are NYCB's troubles, too. We might not have the leaders, nor the special synergy between sports and arts, but I'll remember my first evening at the Ballet, when the curtains opened at each new Act - the stage unbelievably Green, then blazing Red, then dazzelingly White - filled with these wonderful creatures....

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A few years ago, the NY Philharmonic asked NY State to help develop a summer location for the NYP. It never went anywhere for many reasons. They realized a suburban location within a few hours drive is key. Saratoga is too far for day trippers, and has to compete with the Berkshires (tanglewood and jacob's pillow).
I grew up in Saratoga in the 50's and 60's and spent a lot of time at SPAC. Although it was always a NYS institution, it seemed to be actually conceived of and directed by a few wealthy individuals, (Vanderbilts, Whitneys) who were friends of Nelson Rockefeller. This is not bad. Without Governor Rockefeller we probably wouldn't have Lincoln Center, either. These people had the rare combination of vision, power, money and artistic sensibility to create something like SPAC (sounds a bit like Lincoln Kirstein, too). I think we lack these leaders today.

I remember seeing Balanchine's Jewels at SPAC as my first ballet, and thought all ballet looked like that. Needless to say, I kept coming back. As far as finding a new audience, I quickly found out that the ballet was an effective place to take a first date. My high school buddies realized the same thing, so the ballet had an instant audience of teenagers on the lawn, some of whom were even paying attention to the stage.

So SPAC's troubles are NYCB's troubles, too. We might not have the leaders, nor the special synergy between sports and arts, but I'll remember my first evening at the Ballet, when the curtains opened at each new Act - the stage unbelievably Green, then blazing Red, then dazzelingly White - filled with these wonderful creatures....

Thanks to both of you for your comments. There is so much more involved in making ballet a success than just what happens on stage.

Social patterns of "vacationing," community/artistic leadership, and the culture in general do seem to have chanaged quite a bit since the Saratoga season was initiated. I love the image of teenagers attending the ballet and -- sometimes -- actually paying attention. It seems like another century (oh my gosh! -- it was another century) and, indeed, another solar system. :flowers:

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Nice recollections, Globetrotter. To have had "Jewels" as your first ballet (with Verdy. McBride, and Farrell, one hopes) in that magical Saratoga setting, is a memory to be cherished. Thanks for sharing it. You also mention the racing. That's one aspect of the Saratoga you remember that is just as popular today as then. There's something about the place that the other New York tracks, Aqueduct and Belmont, can't hope to duplicate. History perhaps?

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My impression is that the publicity for NYCB at Saratoga is left to SPAC. The information about the season does not appear at the State Theater until SPAC sends down the flyers (for the entire SPAC season) to the Company, usually in June.

Probably, as always, money is the problem (publicity ads, mailings and now online). But a coordinated Summer Dance Festival would be stupendous.

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This just in from the "Business Review" tho I'm not sure what paper:

Wednesday, October 24, 2007 - 9:37 AM EDT

SPAC seeks public input on events

Gift giveaway days, outdoor movie nights and better food are among several ideas floated in a Saratoga Performing Arts Center survey looking for ways to improve the concert and dance venue.

The president of the nonprofit Saratoga Spa State Park concert center is seeking public input regarding it's Freihofer's Jazz Fest, New York City Ballet, Philadelphia Orchestra, Wine and Food Fest and other events.

This is a link to the article, which has a link to SPAC and the survey discussed.

Obviously, they can use our input!

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This summer and last, I really wanted to make a trip up to Saratoga to support NYCB's presence there. But I couldn't find a bus or train home! I'm not politically committed enough to pay for a hotel room, I'm afraid.

The NYCB Guild used to send a bus up once each summer. I haven't heard of them doing that for years now. If they do, maybe they only advertise it to guild members.

My guess is, offer an 11:30 pm bus from Saratoga to NYC, and you'll have, over the course of the summer, a few hundred more seats in seats -- or the lawn.

Just saw this and had to comment. I have the same problem coming into NYC to see anything. No transport back to MA after 6pm, or Hartford, CT (from which I still have to drive 45minutes to home) after 10pm. Several times, I have wandered the city at night, or spent a few hours in an all-night cafe, waiting for the earliest bus/train back north--which leaves at 4:30AM. Not horrible to do in the summer, but very tough in the winter.

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