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Programming a ballet series


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 22 May 2000 - 08:48 AM

I posted this link on the links thread, but nobody bit, so I'm bringing it over to its own thread. This is an article in Sunday's Washington Post by Sarah Kaufman about the ballet series at the Kennedy Center. There's a lot of information in it about how ballet series are programmed, what goes into the decision making, the finances, etc. (but it's very readable). What do you all think of the issues raised here?
[url="http://"http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A28046-2000May18.html"]http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/artic...-2000May18.html[/url]

#2 Natalia

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Posted 22 May 2000 - 12:02 PM

Well, I won't write much just now...let someone else run with the ball. All I will say is that I am pleasantly surprised by Kaufman's article, in that it appears to be pro-ballet (not to say that anyone should be ONLY pro-modern or pro-ballet).

There has been an obvious lack of pro-ballet sentiment at the Kennedy Center Programming Office for a long, long time. This couple from North Carolina obviously don't give a hoot about tutus-and-tiaras. Guess what? It's the tutus-and-tiaras danced by world-class troupes like ABT & the Kirov (or Bolshoi) that fill the house...try getting a ticket for the Bolshoi's run next week & see what I mean! Paul Taylor & the other modern dance masters can carry their unitards and audio-taped music around to other venues. Leave the Kennedy Center stages--certain the Opera House--for the big-scale classics requiring elaborate staging! That's what the subscribers to glamorous series at the Opera House expect to see. Unfortunately...as we saw with "Dracula"...fancy costumes & classical music doesn't necessarily mean better....but that's another issue altogether. My leitmotif in all of this is: if you're gonna sell a CLASSICAL BALLET SERIES then, for goodness sake, make sure that (a) it's the TOP classical ballet troupes that we see (plus DTHarlem, for obvious demographic reasons in Washington, DC) and (B) that the series does not include items such as ice-skating theaters or modern dance troupes (Morris' Dido & Aeneas last year or St. Petersburg Ice Ballet recently).

Somebody else chime in, please!

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 22 May 2000 - 12:58 PM

Well, I know my remarks will be tainted because I write for the Post and Sarah is a friend Posted Image but I've been waiting for this piece to appear for months. (She's been working on it for almost a year, and has interviewed more people than she could ever squeeze into an article.)

I liked the way she countered all the arguments that the programmers always throw at people who question "why no ballet?" especially the "well, it loses money." (And I loved the line about how one of the questions was regarded as "unfriendly" and complained about.)

The Kennedy Center series has been going downhill since Martin Feinstein left in the early 1980s. He made some bloopers -- most notably bringing the Stuttgart and Cuban Ballets, his two favorite companies, to the Kennedy Center for a month; they simply didn't have the repertory or enough stars to sustain it, and there wasn't enough of a ballet audience here that wanted to see the same cast in the same ballet four or five times. But in his time, the Center programmed only the big companies -- ABT, NYCB, the Royal, Bolshoi (the Kirov wouldn't tour then, and Paris Opera was in its Slump), the Danes -- and the smaller companies only when they really had something to show. None of this, "Oh, but he's been working so hard and it's his turn" stuff. When he left, his successor (Marta Istomin, who was not a dance person), started bringing in regional companies, and didn't begin with the strongest ones. People used to a Royal Ballet "Swan Lake" were not going to pay the same amount of money for a "It's my first year, but what the hell, let's do Swan Lake" Swan Lake, and that audience evaporated. It's never been as strong since, although ABT was almost always a sell-out in the Baryshnikov years (the Center cheated, IMO, by never announcing casting, so quite a few people bought lots of tickets in the hopes of seeing Baryshnikov), and when the Kirov or Bolshoi is on a subscription, the subscriptions increase dramatically. But the Ken Cen also became notorious for disastrous repertory choices, particularly of opening nights: the Royal in "Prince of the Pagodas," the Australians with "Spartacus," etc.

So the problems didn't start in the past four years, but they've definitely become more noticeable. Every time I go to a ballet performance at least two people come up to me and ask why the programming has been so poor, and I always go into my "Call! Write! Hound them! Let them know!" rabblerousing, but I don't know how many do it.

One word on the modern dance aspect. I don't consider Paul Taylor or Merce Cunningham at all inferior, and would rather see them than half the drivel that's been on the ballet series in the past few years. For those in D.C., the Paul Taylor company follows the Bolshoi (in the Eisenhower Theatre) and if you're not used to seeing modern dance, or think you don't like it, it's the perfect "first company" for ballet people, as Taylor is an extraordinarily musical choreographer and his works are "steppy." He's a renegade early modern dancer and uses modern dance technique (including a relaxed foot) but he's one of the century's greatest and he's getting up there in age. While the Bolshoi tops at $85, Paul Taylor tickets (with taped music, yes, and which he doesn't want, I'm sure) top at $27.

I do agree with Jeannie, though, that the practice of including a modern dance or pop show on the ballet series is wrongheaded. In some ways, it's condescending, saying, "Look, modern dance is really much better but you're too dumb to realize it, but I'll bet you'll really really like Twyla Tharp and if we get you to come to this performance you'll see the light." I think going after a crossover audience is a great idea, but then do it across the board. They never make modern dance subscribers also buy a ticket to "Swan Lake."

A word on programming. The Danish Royal Theatre has always been known as the "Theater of the Three Arts" (drama, ballet and opera, with drama taking pride of place). Their subscription series is multi-art form. You get two operas, two ballets, and two dramas, for example. (I'm sure they're changing this as I write. "What? Something that worked? It must be stopped instantly!" is the motto there now.) Up until the 1960s, there was some very imaginative cross-art programming. A ballet would be the curtain raiser for a play, or, sometimes on triple bills, a play would be one of the "acts." In one old program I found, one of the leading actresses had a monologue as Joan of Arc that was sandwiched between "Serenade" and "Graduation Ball." I'm sure a lot of the actress's fans came to see that monologue, and just might have liked one of the other ballets. As late as the early 1980s, two of the greatest Danish senior mimes did Samuel Beckett's "Song Without Words" on a ballet workshop program. *That* kind of crossover audience is great, and I've always wondered why the Kennedy Center, with its many theaters, doesn't try a sampler subscription.

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited May 22, 2000).]

#4 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 22 May 2000 - 11:12 PM

I applaud Ms. Kaufman for this wonderful article, and just hope that it will wake someone up at the KC!

#5 Guest_Barb_*

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Posted 23 May 2000 - 09:32 AM

I'm not sure how much waking up there can be, what with the Opera having a 15 year contract for HALF of the year (26 weeks, egads)! That's 26 weeks remaining to program the big theater tours, musical theatre creations (a la Annie Get Your Gun), modern dance, and ballet. That is not a lot of time. And as the article mentions, this is happening throughout the country. Here in Pittsburgh long-established companies fight to have the weeks they desire in theaters they have occupied for years...and they are fighting the theater owner's goal of actually being able to make, instead of lose money...and therefore their own presenting of big musicals.

The stuff with the Reinharts is always a hot topic of discussion (read that as a word that sounds like witching) at conferences. Never out loud really, but at the dinner tables and coffee stands. And it goes something like this: If you aren't "in" with them, you can't get in to ADF's season, and you need ADF to get on the Kennedy Center stage. And if you're "in" with them as a teacher for ADF, rarely will your company be accepted as "in" for the ADF season...so better to not teach, as you will be branded forever. And it seems to me that just because a company is great for the ADF season, does not immediately hold that the same season should then be presented at the Kennedy Center. Two different worlds!

I am sure they are sensitive to such a question, and respond to it as unfriendly, because it is being asked A LOT.

A week of Ballet Theatre - $750,000 to $1,000,000 and the presenter loses money.

Perhaps instead of yelling at the presenters, we should be yelling at major corporations to INCREASE their underwriting of such arts. And, if it takes singing their names from the stage, billboards out front and 100 page programs with everyone's names in it, I say, go for it!

#6 Natalia

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Posted 23 May 2000 - 10:54 AM

Alexandra - I recognize the very positive intentions of your proposal for a mixed-bill program of classical ballet, music & drama. Nonetheless, wouldn't this be a bit like an "Vaudeville for Hi-Brows"? Maybe it would work if there were a common theme linking the various segments, e.g., Romeo & Juliet love scene as interpreted through different arts; Swans - a scene from Lohengrin, Act 2 of Swan Lake, orchestral rendition of Swan of Tuonela....
- Jeannie

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited May 23, 2000).]

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 23 May 2000 - 02:39 PM

Martin Feinstein did some theme programming. The most wonderful, for me, was a Romantic Era festival, that included opera, symphonic music, ballet, theater.

About "vaudeville for highbrows," what about a "variety show for highbrows"? Would that be all that terrible? It could be one option. I'd still want separate subscription series for specific art forms, but there are some people, especially in such a transient city, who are interested in the arts, but perhaps aren't very knowledgeable, or who find it difficult to choose exactly what -- and especially those who have limited resources, but could manage two plays, two operas, two ballets, etc. Washington Performing Arts Society does sampler subscriptions -- two jazz, two chamber music, two symphonies, two modern dance performances, etc. and they have always been popular.

What I liked about the sampler subscription is the kind of audience it breeds -- at least in Copenhagen. This may well be the difference between Europe and America, but people who are interested in the arts there are interested in the arts generally, not just one art, and the whole city seems to partake of events. Once when I was there, the Theatre was doing Richard III, and one of the actors was doing a modern, one-man play about Richard III. All of the dancers I talked to, and the other people outside the Theatre I met on that trip talked about it. Many of them would go to see the Shakespeare, then the modern play, and then back -- or vice versa. People who don't especially like ballet will go for to see a new triple bill, or Bournonville production, and a new Sylph is an event. I don't know if that could happen here, but I think it might be useful to encourage crossover.

#8 Natalia

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Posted 23 May 2000 - 03:53 PM

OK, I was thinking "Ed Sullivan Show" mixing Toppo-Gigio puppets with Rudi & Margot! Posted Image

I know that Diaghilev did some "mix-and-match" (opera/ballet/orchestral) programs in the earliest years. Obviously a hit. Wasn't there a similar ballet-plus-opera, all-Stravinsky program at the Met a few years ago, featuring Makarova in the ballet offering..."le Rossignol" among the works? If memory serves me, it didn't fare too well at the box office. Great concept, though.

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 23 May 2000 - 04:30 PM

No, Jeannie, I wasn't recommending an *exact* copy of Ed Sullivan (although that would be more likely to happen) Posted Image I think your point about prior experiments along this line in dance not being popular is probably true, though (this is purely from a Kennedy Center perspective; it may well work elsewhere). I do know that several years ago they added a Thursday ballet matinee to the theater series as an option and got a very small response.

#10 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 23 May 2000 - 05:37 PM

Lincoln Center is taking tentative (and wise) steps to try and promote "interdisciplinary" subscriptions: There have been offers mailed to regular subscribers at any of the resident institutions for subscriptions which combine all three (Philharmonic, Opera and NYCB) I think this is just a great idea, since it uses resources that are already in place.

Wasn't there even "highbrow vaudeville" on TV once? What was NBC's Omnibus program in the late 50's, was that it's concept? If you get a thoughtful curator, it could be just wonderful.

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#11 eugene

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Posted 24 May 2000 - 07:20 AM

The Vienna Opera have an interesting program. The first part is the popular one act opera Il Pagliacci. But the next part is not Cavielliera Rusticana (often billed as Cav and Pag) as is typical but the Rite of Spring.

What a brilliant idea - a one act opera and act ballet!

#12 Kevin Ng

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Posted 24 May 2000 - 10:08 AM

What an unusual programming at the Vienna Opera. Are you going to see this in Vienna, Eugene? Who is the choreographer for this Rite of Spring?

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 24 May 2000 - 10:36 AM

It is a good idea, I think -- the mixing of a one-act opera and a one-act ballet.

It's something that was routinely done in the 19th century. Except then they mixed a three-act opera and a three-act ballet Posted Image

In Copenhagen in the 1830s, there was a double bill of a one-act play and a one-act ballet ON THE SAME THEME: a soldier returning home from the war. Bournonville rather favored the ballet Posted Image as it could express basic emotions much more simply than the long "tiresome" speeches of which plays were constructed in those days.

Nothing is new. We just keep discovering the things that older generations threw out.

#14 eugene

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Posted 25 May 2000 - 07:36 AM

sadly I am not going to Vienna. It costs more to go to Vienna then New York from London and I do not want to go just for one event. When I go to New York I can see 3 different works in a weekend (and some baseball as well).

I think the Rite of Spring was Pino Bausch's one.

I do not think such a program would work in London and New York - too many ballet fans hate opera and too many opera fans looked on ballet as an inferior art (no flames please - I am just observing over peoples views)

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 26 May 2000 - 01:39 PM

I'm just posting to bump this up, hoping to get some people outside of D.C. to read this article before it gets taken offline, and to comment on it. I think there are a lot of issues raised here that apply to ballet programming in almost every city (perhaps not New York, where there's not only a much bigger ballet audience, but more theaters suited to it).


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