What works? That is the question, to paraphrase my friend Bill. The answer to it may even determine whether ballet as we know it is to be or not to be. Using the performers' personalities to draw people in is hardly original; it seems to me to be the latest fad in the industry. And I think it has fatal potential for ballet, which, like other theatre, puts people onstage not to present themselves, but, if they're any good, to present the illusion of something else. An element of this stale and dangerous approach is the idea I've gathered of having dancers talk about what they do. I'm noticing at least some dancers sound confused about it; for instance Gillian Murphy was recently quoted to the effect that
There’s so much power in simply expressing ourselves in movement that has nothing to do with the physical feats we can do.
(from "Time Out Chicago" for April 4-18) "Ourselves"? Well, uh, how about showing us your dance
, dear? The emphasis on the personal is very nearly an emphasis on the irrelevant, and risks distracting performer and viewer alike. In the extreme, the naive members of the audience will warmly applaud a dancer obviously straining; we feel generous toward someone in trouble -- not a bad disposition, really, in everyday life -- but it's not the thing that matters
in this kind of theater.
So, what works? I've got only a little anecdotal evidence for that. Curiosity about a ballet to music I liked or about a ballet company recommended by a helpful music critic got me
in, and my own efforts to get others in have always involved the classical-music connection, free tickets, and, usually, some good video exposure early on. But I don't know how many of my inductees went back on their own dime, and anyway, I was doing it retail and we'd like to have it happen more wholesale.
Long ago, I think it was the morning after the first "Dance in America" broadcast, which featured the Joffrey Ballet, I believe a line formed at the City Center box office which extended out the door, down the sidewalk, and around the corner. But that was New York. Still, I don't let go of my hunch that a "free sample" approach can be helpful. (Your restaurant is empty? Put somebody out on the sidewalk with a tray of free samples.)
Longer ago, well before the age of television, the cross-country tours of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo were marketed with some success, I guess, but some customers confused it with something they'd had previous experience of: "What language is this ballet in?" some asked when the tickets went on sale, and afterward, there were some complaints that "I enjoyed it, but I couldn't hear a word." (I'm relying on memories of reading contemporaneous press accounts on display in the Cincinnati Library during a "Ballet Russe" festival there a few years ago.) I mention these things not just to amuse but to show that some marketers got an approximate alignment between expectation and performance: People understood that it was musical theatre
, not personal or athletic display. I think if there's fair agreement between expectation and delivery, people are likely to be satisfied, even pleasantly surprised, and be disposed to return someday.
But the musical connection seems to be avoided today like the proverbial plague. I recently asked a frequent poster in the MCB forum who attends classical-music concerts as well whether he'd ever seen an ad for a ballet presenter in a classical concert program. He hadn't, and neither have I, although I have seen the opposite. Decades ago, finding some marketers in conversation during intermission at ballet programs here in Chicago, I asked about advertising ballet to the classical audience. "NO!" was the curt reply, both times. I don't understand that.
More recently, encountering some ballet PR people elsewhere, inquiring about their approach to their job, I was told, "Get
'em in and hope
they like it!" It seems a blunt, unfocused attitude.
The press release bart
quotes above seems to be publicity about publicity; pretty lame, as Kathleen
says. Somebody with too much time on their hands? How is publicity about publicity supposed to help MCB? I suppose it might do something for the publicists among their co-workers in the area, but what else? (The last time I counted names in a MCB program, I think I found one development staff person for every three dancers. Of course they don't all work on publicity, but I wonder what the ratio is elsewhere, and what they do do.)