Eileen

City Ballet Premieres

22 posts in this topic

During a recent season of premieres featuring architectural designs by Salvatore Calatrava (sp?), the only new ballet I would care to see again was Ratmansky's Namouna Divertissements. I wonder what effect Peter Martins' commitment to new but doleful choreography may be having on diluting the NYCB brand. By which I mean, and my boss, a football fan put it so well, that it was causing patrons to lose faith in the company and reduces their willingness to spend hard earned money not only on premieres, but on NYCB repertoire in general. As my boss put it, "If Shakespeare's first play was Hamlet, then he had four flops, and his fifth was Macbeth, do you think anyone would have taken a chance on Macbeth?"

I feel NYCB is diluting its brand by a commitment to mediocre premieres for the sake of "new combinations". I know these premieres are sponsored by donors - but when they are bad, they are bringing down the company in the manner described. It's gotten to the point where you can predict that all-Balanchine and all-Robbins programs are winners, but any program with a new ballet or a ballet by the Ballet Master in Chief is really not worth betting on. And you are betting when you decide whether to purchase tickets to NYCB - you want to make a good choice, cause this city is filled with choice, overfilled with cultural choices.

Isn't it the responsibility of the Board of Trustees to oversee the Ballet Master in Chief and moderate his commitment to new mediocrity? Is the Board totally behind this expenditure and excess?

I'd like to hear from you, the readers and ballet-goers. Do you think the deficit might be attributable to a decline in the quality of the ballets being presented with much marketing hype as "new"?

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I saw an interesting interview of Peter Martins in June on PBS's "Sunday Arts" program. The piece was mostly about SAB, but Martins mentioned that NYCB is the most "creative" company because the company constantly is presenting new works. I think he is confusing creativity with being prolific. Quantity is not the equivalent of quality. I happen to agree with you that many, many of the new works are duds (Call Me Ben, The Lady with the Little Dog, Outlier, Seven Deadly Sins, the Bigonzetti works, the Stroman works and on and on). However, it takes a lot of duds to get a few masterpieces. I don't think anyone wants NYCB to become a museum for Balanchine and Robbins ballets. In fact, there are some people who prefer to attend only the programs that have new ballets on them. I think the dancers also become bored dancing the same ballets, and part of the attraction for talented dancers at NYCB is that they have the chance to work directly with choreographers and have new ballets created on them. (Does anyone recall a film clip of Wendy Whelan that was shown at Morphoses the Wheeldon Company a few years ago in which she says that her goal is to work with as many choreographers as possible?) The problem is that there are not enough people like Ratmansky and Wheeldon to go around. Good choreographers seem to be in high demand and in very short supply.

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I'm not sure how they will discover new wonderful choreographers, if they fail to offer anyoneeir a chance?

On the other hand, considering the state of the economy, they should program winners for their entire season, and separate "new works" into a smaller, cheaper venue. Perhaps a "new works" festival? Or a "new works" residency for MOVES at a festival such as Vail, Jacobs Pillow, Spoleto, etc?

Perhaps NYCB should limit their outside works to "proven" works from Jiri Kilian, etc? But then don't they look like everyone else around the country? Everyone else seems to do the Chinese menu approach: A little of this modern, a little of that restoration, a little of this Balanchine, a little of that Romantic story ballet.

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Without creating new works a company dies... What is the joy of forever dancing ballets created on someone else? Not every choreographer in the world had Balanchine's high rate of success and even Balanchine had some failures. The point is to keep creating and the works that prevail become the next generation's " classics". We can only hope NYCB lands some new resident choreographers, but lambasting initiatives to premiere new work is no way to encourage that...

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"What is the joy of forever dancing ballets created on someone else?" asks Amy Reusch. Ask a violinist if playing Brahms is stifling their creativity because Brahms wrote for 19th century violinist Joseph Joachim. Did I get less aesthetic joy singing arias written for Mozart's sister-in-law? No, we can't have a museum of Balanchine and Robbins. But the alternative is not creative stultification. Each new generation of dancers is inspired by Balanchine and Robbins. But yes, there comes a point where you can't keep dancing the same ballets - as Susan Jaffe said a few years ago when she retired, how many times can you dance Swan Lake?

You've made excellent points. It is desirable to have new choreography. It is desirable for dancers to have new works choreographed on them. But the key question is, is it necessary? It is necessary to reduce a $6 million budget deficit. It is essential to keep audiences coming to see the company. Programming fewer premieres will not cause the company to die. Incurring huge expenditures on ballets that are DOA will endanger the company. Reducing seating capacity is a clear sign that the repertoire cannot attract enough people to fill the hall. I remember - correct me if I'm wrong - when seasons offered two new premieres. Now they regularly offer five. This is a luxury and I think the number of premieres can be cut back to two without putting the company on life support.

I relish the exchange of ideas, and since controversy follows me wherever I go, I look forward to the forthcoming discussion.

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Mr. Balanchine, who used food images frequently in his descriptions, said that his job was to "FEED" his dancers*, specifically by creating new works. He also recognized that not all his own works were masterworks (see the many references on this board to PAMTGG), although I think that all of us can agree that he had a considerably higher percentage than most choreographers. But if you look back at the history of NYCB, and its repertory, you'll see that from its beginnings, Mr. B invited others to contribute to the care and feeding of his dancers. Tudor, Bolender, (Ruthanna) Boris, are just the ones that pop into my head at 5 a.m.....

Since Mr. Martins took over, soon after Mr. B's death in 1983, the whole idea of adding new works to the repertory has been of utmost importance, for reasons that many of you have already cited. Mr. Martins has tried many approaches. He realized that he could not supply the Company with all the works it needed, and until 1998 he, like Balanchine, shared the bulk of the responsibility with Jerome Robbins. Mr. Martins has also brought in outside choreographers, several times creating "Festivals" to quickly increase the number and scope of new works. Mr. Martins is, if nothing else, a great "showman," and the Festivals -- some of which exclusively celebrated Mr. B. -- were always well put together and well attended. Each time he had to have the Board "on board" so to speak, because these events had to be budgeted. Personally, I can't imagine being able to stand in front of the Board to propose yet another Festival -- I'm sure not all of them truly understand the importance of creating new works. When Mr. B was alive, he didn't have to ask permission, he just spoke to Mr. Kirstein, and off they went (but he knew what was coming: Mr. B. is also quoted as saying "Après moi, le Board").

The first really ambitious Festival was the American Music Festival, in 1988, just 5 years after Mr. B's death. Martins invited many outside choreographers -- from first timers to experienced (like Paul Taylor) and gave them their chance. He also gave them buckets of money, and the lesson of that festival became the guidelines for future events: no sets, only variations on leotards for costumes, because some of the 1988 premiers were such visual turkeys. The "Architecture of Dance," with its five (?) ballets designed by Calatrava was the first time since the 1988 endeavor that he bent those guidelines on a large scale.

Mr. Martins has also attempted to foster the choreographic talents of past and present members of the Company, at workshops and for main stage productions. That was the way that Christopher Wheeldon got started choreographing for NYCB (he had been choreographing since age 8). Among others were Miriam Mahdaviani, Christopher d'Amboise, Bart Cook, Robert LaFosse, and Alexander Proia. The New York Choreographic Institute (for which Justin Peck has just been named Resident Choreographer [not sure of the title]) is another attempt at stimulating young talent. I personally feel that this area is where Mr. Martins has not pushed hard enough, or given enough dancers enough opportunities. We should have seen more from those dancer/choreographers, and seen more individuals given their chance.

Using "names" like Strohman, LuPone and MacCartney (and now, Millipied) is a great opportunity to enlarge the audience while building the repertory. We're lucky we have the status and draw to appeal to those artists, because hopefully the people that come to see those new works, will come again -- unlike "Nutcracker" audiences. (How many times has someone told you, "Oh, I just LOVE ballet, I've seen 'The Nutcracker' twice!!")

Whether or not the resulting work is a hit, or masterpiece or flop and does or does not enter the repertory is not the only issue. The issue is the "feeding" of the dancers and the commitment to creativity, in the hopes that both the dancers and the audience end up feeling "full" and hopefully, satisfied.

*The 1984 video biography shows this statement.

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ViolinConcerto, what you write is very informed and valid. New works have always been essential to the NYCB mission, starting with Balanchine. But the fact that new works are important to City Ballet does not address their budgetary effect, does not address the quality issue, and does not touch on the dampening effect that poor quality new works has on the audience. The difference between Balanchine and Martins is - Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein filled any budget deficit. Now private fundraising must do so. So the shape of ballet may have to respond to market forces, such as that posed by informed, long-time audience members who no longer attend premieres as they are so often a disappointment.

I will write to Dan Wakin and suggest this controversial topic as an article. His access to City Ballet executives and to Martins may shed light on the issues that I have raised.

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I still have not seen proven in this discussion the linkage between new choreography and the deficit. I think we are grasping at straws. Performance ticket revenue and tour fees remained about the same from 2009 to 2010, but the deficit increased to $3 million.

I also should point out that the majority of performances in a year feature no new or recent choreography, so a subscriber or patron can easily find programs that feature the old chestnuts.

Maybe there have been some bad new ballets, but I don't think many of us end up "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." I saw ABT's rep program this spring, and although it was a mess, I am glad I saw it because it stretched and challenged my perspective on dance. It made you think and reflect. It broadened my vocabulary and dance experience. We should be open to new experiences, not closed to them. Our society is becoming too risk averse in general, looking for safe bets. Go out and live a little, which means accepting some disappointment along the way. And that applies in ballet too.

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No ballet company has every operated at a profit. The great companies of the French and Russian courts were supported by the rulers and the ruling classes. Our patronage, membership, private, corporate and government grant support are merely attempts to copy that system of backing.

If the NYCB were to sit on its creative butt and perform only "oldies but goodies," well, we might as well stay home and watch our videotapes of Merrill, Suzanne, Sean and Peter (not to mention Margot, Rudy, Eric and their ilk).

Risk is part of creativity, and creativity is the name of the game, not complacency and security. Not everyone doesn't like the new choreographies -- there have been torrents of cries of audience approval for every premier that the critics and older fans (myself included) have panned. That's OK with me, we need new audiences, and they will grow and learn to love more and more IF they continue to come.

But, again, the Artistic Director has diverse groups to please, and just as important as pleasing the Board and the critics is pleasing the dancers. At the risk of breaking Board policies momentarily, I'll say that I recall speaking to several corps dancers, at least 20 years ago, about a new work that I thought was awful (though I didn't say). Their response was that they loved dancing it. That means the choreographer had "fed" them, and they enjoyed the meal. Those are the dancers who will enjoy and love their work, and that transmits to every one of us, connecting at a subconscious, gut level and keeps us coming.

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No ballet company has every operated at a profit. The great companies of the French and Russian courts were supported by the rulers and the ruling classes. Our patronage, membership, private, corporate and government grant support are merely attempts to copy that system of backing.

If the NYCB were to sit on its creative butt and perform only "oldies but goodies," well, we might as well stay home and watch our videotapes of Merrill, Suzanne, Sean and Peter (not to mention Margot, Rudy, Eric and their ilk).

Risk is part of creativity, and creativity is the name of the game, not complacency and security. Not everyone doesn't like the new choreographies -- there have been torrents of cries of audience approval for every premier that the critics and older fans (myself included) have panned. That's OK with me, we need new audiences, and they will grow and learn to love more and more IF they continue to come.

But, again, the Artistic Director has diverse groups to please, and just as important as pleasing the Board and the critics is pleasing the dancers. At the risk of breaking Board policies momentarily, I'll say that I recall speaking to several corps dancers, at least 20 years ago, about a new work that I thought was awful (though I didn't say). Their response was that they loved dancing it. That means the choreographer had "fed" them, and they enjoyed the meal. Those are the dancers who will enjoy and love their work, and that transmits to every one of us, connecting at a subconscious, gut level and keeps us coming.

Quite right, ViolinConcerto. The Salvatore Calatrava season I saw five or six new ballets, and discovered one ballet I thought was excellent, by Ratmansky, naturally. If I had not attended all those disappointing premieres, I would have missed out on Namouna Divertissements. I hope there is no connection between mediocre premieres and audience attendance, I hope people do not give up on NYCB because they are disappointed by the latest new choreography. But there is a trend toward all-Balanchine programs on my part and judging from the audience, on the part of others. People are not interested in what the dancers love to dance. You must feed the audience before you can nourish the dancers. If we do not receive aesthetic joy from the ballet, it will cease to be a priority for us. With the shrinking dollar, I must be very careful which ballets I invest in. I think there is a connection between premieres that disappoint and box office results. I see it, I experience it. I can understand that a company benefactor may have a different "slant" on new works because he is in a different position than I am. Major contributors to the company (without whom the company could not exist!) want to be recognized as sponsors of new works. But ordinary subscribers want to be nourished for entirely personal reasons, without notice, without glory.

I see I am a minority of one here. I will focus my attention on the question of whether there is any causal connection between premieres and the deficit and if there is any way of proving or disproving a connection. All I have experienced is just personal speculation and observation. Maybe Dan Wakin can give me some insight.

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As I noted earlier, revenue from performance tickets and fees are flat - not down - so I do not see how this is significantly contributing to the deficit. And from this past season, as an example, although I did not like the new Stroman work, it sold very well - based on my discussions with the company - above their average gate for performances.

So is new choreography contributing to the deficit? Let's look at the facts. Looking at FY '10 financials, you can see areas that have contributed to the deficit:

  • Other revenue (besides tickets and performance fees): down $0.8 million
  • Corporate donations: down $1.4 million (although individual donations went up)
  • Investment income: down $0.4 million
  • Ballet production costs: up $1.2 million
  • Public support expense: up $0.6 million

These items chiefly contributed to the $3.7 million operating deficit in FY 2010, and probably will contribute to the expected $5 million deficit for FY '11. Those financials are not out yet, as the company is still being audited.

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Slant, do you know what kind of items fall within the term "production costs"? Does that include fees paid to composers and choreographers? Does that include scenic design expenses and costume design expenses? Since the Architecture of Dance festival was in Spring 2010, can we assume that part of the increased production costs of FY 2010 related to the preparation and execution of Calatrava designs that were part of a number of ballets during that festival? Can we assume that part of that sum relates to the elaborate costumes designed by Giles Mendel of J. Mendel for Call Me Ben, which was part of that festival?

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As I noted earlier, revenue from performance tickets and fees are flat - not down - so I do not see how this is significantly contributing to the deficit. And from this past season, as an example, although I did not like the new Stroman work, it sold very well - based on my discussions with the company - above their average gate for performances.

So is new choreography contributing to the deficit? Let's look at the facts. Looking at FY '10 financials, you can see areas that have contributed to the deficit:

  • Other revenue (besides tickets and performance fees): down $0.8 million
  • Corporate donations: down $1.4 million (although individual donations went up)
  • Investment income: down $0.4 million
  • Ballet production costs: up $1.2 million
  • Public support expense: up $0.6 million

These items chiefly contributed to the $3.7 million operating deficit in FY 2010, and probably will contribute to the expected $5 million deficit for FY '11. Those financials are not out yet, as the company is still being audited.

What is public support expense?

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I'm not an accountant, but I think "public support expense" may refer to expenses relating to fundraising endeavors (such as costs of printing and mailing flyers requesting contributions).

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Slant, do you know what kind of items fall within the term "production costs"? Does that include fees paid to composers and choreographers? Does that include scenic design expenses and costume design expenses? Since the Architecture of Dance festival was in Spring 2010, can we assume that part of the increased production costs of FY 2010 related to the preparation and execution of Calatrava designs that were part of a number of ballets during that festival? Can we assume that part of that sum relates to the elaborate costumes designed by Giles Mendel of J. Mendel for Call Me Ben, which was part of that festival?

Production costs include the items you cited: fees paid to composers and choreographers, scenic design expenses, lighting, stage management and costume design expenses. I think they also include the actual salaries of the dancers, ballet masters, orchestra, etc. These costs account for over 2/3 of the operating expenses.

The public support expense is typically expenses to promote, recruit and retain donors and governmental aid. This includes development and printing of promotional materials, professional expenses for the arrangement of complex donations (endowments, charitable remainder trusts, etc.), expenses for the recruitment of major donors, expenses related to special events and benefits that major donors receive (think patron lounge, socials after workshops, etc.). I am not sure if the Development Department staff salaries and benefits are part of this figure.

To put public support expense in perspective, NYCB spent $4.6 million in public support expense to generate $19.3 million in public support revenue. Contrast this to FY 2007, when the company had a deficit of just $900,000, public support expense was $5.6 million to generate $22 million in public support expense. I will let everyone judge on their own if they consider this ratio appropriate. I would also note that total public support is down 12 percent from 2007.

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Slant, While we appreciate your reluctance to impose your opinion on others, we still would like to know your position, particularly since you are a major donor.

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This wouldn't be the first time that NYCB spent a lot of money on a festival. The first under Martins, if I remember correctly, was the American Dance Festival, and then there were the Diamond Festivals.

How much money for the festivals is restricted for that purpose? How many ballets have gone on to survive?

Suzanne Farrell Ballet is not a full-time company, but if that company is a museum, it's one I'm happy to go to. Not every work is a masterpiece, but every work has a purpose.

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Puppytreats,in answer to your request to share my thoughts on the development expenses, let me first share some guidelines from an expert. James Greenfield is one of the leading gurus on fundraising for nonprofits and he has established “Reasonable Cost Guidelines” for fundraising and development. I provide a summary of those below:

  • Direct Mail Acquisition/Constituency Building: $1.25 to $1.50 to raise $1.00 (Plus a 1% rate of return on all lists used in the mailing)
  • Direct Mail Renewal/Constituency Retention: 20 – 25 cents per $1 raised (Plus a 50% rate of renewal among donors of the previous year)
  • Benefits and Special Events: 50 cents of gross proceeds per $1 raised
  • Corporate and Foundation Solicitation: 20 cents per $1 raised
  • Wills and Estate Planning: 25 cents per $1 raised
  • Capital Campaign and Major Gifts: 5-10 cents per $1 raised

I think, based on those parameters, that NYCB is in a reasonable ratio of approx 20 percent of public support expenses to revenue raised. I say that assuming that the NYCB Development Department's staff (about 17 people) salaries and benefits are included in that expense line item in the financials. If it is not, then we have a completely different story.

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Footnote regarding ballet companies and profit... I have been given to understand that two dance companies operated outside the non-profit club... Perhaps not ballet but not so very far off: the Trocks and Denishawn.

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Back to the topic of Premieres, new ballets, etc.

a video interview with Maria Korowsky (about 18 minutes) where she makes clear the importance of working with choreographers when they create new work

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Back to the topic of Premieres, new ballets, etc.

a video interview with Maria Korowsky (about 18 minutes) where she makes clear the importance of working with choreographers when they create new work

That was a fascinating interview, Maria is one of my favorite principals in the company and I try to catch her dancing whenever I can. I can see exactly what you are saying - that doing new choreography is very important to the dancers.

But - and I will chance taking an unpopular position - the importance of new works to the dancers is not relevant to my argument. Which is that too many of the new works are not interesting to the audience and discourage the audience from attending premieres. I am sure there is an audience for premieres, but they are not of the same appeal as other, better ballets. I loved Chris Wheeldon's Carousel, but his Estancia was simply, grotesque to me. He has diluted his brand. He's a 3 out of 5 choreographer. I look forward to seeing Mercurial Manouvers (sp?) which I have never seen. There's a lot of Wheeldon that is great - but not everything. With a $6 million deficit, I doubt that the dancers are willing to cut their pay to help the company reduce the deficit. Like me, Maria and all the dancers want everything. I want everything, but I trim my sails to the winds. Meaning I buy what I can afford. It is not enough to say new work is important - the question is how much new work and how many fol-de-rols like the Calatrava designs. It's not just the dancers' opinions that are to be considered. Ultimately, it's what the paying public will pay to see.

How to pay down the deficit? This is the issue. Naturally the dancers want new works choreographed on them, the audience wants $15 tickets, and the sponsors want their names on the building. The company can't afford everything for everybody.

I've brought our discussion to the attention of Dan Wakin - let's see if he's interested in the topic or some aspect of the topic. I am particularly interested in whether having 5 premieres in one season is absolutely essential to the company and whether the 5 premieres are contributing to the deficit, and how would you determine that?

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Purely anecdotally, the house has in my experience been pretty full and excited for most recent premieres I've seen -- particualrly Seven Deadly Sins. The problem is i don't think a lot of that buzz or attendance transfers to the Company as a whole, for a variety of reasons. I'd like to assume this is something the company tracks for its own purposes, but i doubt they'd share it. To me part of the expense of those premieres could be considered marketing, getting new people in the door who might become long term fans.

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