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The Untapped Audience


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 16 June 2001 - 12:38 PM

At performances of the Universal Ballet here this week, more than half the audience -- maybe as much as two-thirds -- were Koreans. (The Universal is primarily a Korean company.) There was a lot of supposition that the house was heavily papered; if so, good for them. They brought in people who don't usually attend ballet, and they seemed to enjoy it.

Koreans are not in evidence at regular Kennedy Center ballet subscription evenings. African-Americans come for Dance Theatre of Harlem or Alvin Ailey, but also do not make up more than 1% of the regular audience. Years ago, when DTH did a two week season here, one on subscription and one off, the racial composition of the audience was completely flipped (white for the subscription week, with a scattering of blacks, black for the off-sub week, but with a sizable white minority; DTH has crossed the color line).

Some of this is due to papering. When presenters need to fill a house, they will go to constituent groups. One often hears French spoken at French dance company performances, German at the Stuttgart -- often Embassy and business staffs will come, whether out of duty or pleasure I don't know.

We hear of similar audiences for the Eifman Ballet, not only in New York, but across the country. The audiences seem to be predominantly Russian. (For Eifman and Universal Ballets, the balletmane audience is not yet attracted to them.) The Cuban Ballet when it was here some years ago had a large Spanish-speaking component.

Aren't presenters and dance companies missing something here? If these national-specific audiences were dragged in, or only would come for a free ticket and spent the time yawning, that's one thing, but they don't. The Korean audience seemed as interested in "La Bayadere" as in "Shim Chung." They liked BALLET -- but will they be back?

If ballet could bring in all of these different groups, the audience would swell considerably, and it would avoid the present bush-beating approach -- if we show them MTV-ballet, they will come -- that is often going on now. How does one reach minority audiences?

#2 Diana L

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Posted 16 June 2001 - 04:13 PM

That's a tough one. One thing I notice with NYCB and ABT is they only advertise in the NY Times. There are no advertisements in the NY Post or Daily News (which are considered not as intellectual) same with magazines. I've never seen an advertisement in say the Korean newspapers (of which there are plenty) any of the Latin ones either. I would expect they might even have cheaper advertising rates.
Companies have reached out to the kids with discount tickets prices but given the option I think most boys would rather see Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider than Darci Kistler in Swan Lake even if the movie price is more. They don't need supervision at a movie (hypothetically!)but a parent would have to pay for a full price ticket to go with them. And ticket prices are a big problem right now. I used to go at least once a week to the ballet, now I go maybe once every two or three weeks. I think some people feel ballet is something of money. You need it to study it, to see it and if they don't make it affordable, why go to a ballet when you can blow $9 on a movie and be able to see the screen, you don't have to dress nice and if you can't get to a movie, it'll be on video pretty soon anyway.
Another underlying quotient is that of the company's makeup. African Americans look at NYCB or ABT and don't see many African American dancers, so they may assume that there's little potential for their little boy or girl to get in to those companies but a company like DTH or Ailey is made up of mostly minorities.
I'm a bit all over the place in my answer, but I hope I made some good points.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 16 June 2001 - 04:37 PM

Some very good points. Thank you.

Ticket prices are a big problem for everybody, and I don't see that as solvable. Costs will continue to go up, and houses will continue to stay the same size. (The threats to move everything into football stadiums, which have been rumbling since at least the 1960s, do not seem a good solution for classical ballet.)

But the tickets for DTH and Universal Ballet weren't free, so those audience members have the means to pay. It's poor people of any color who get shut out.

I think Diana's last point is probably right on, and it's sad. I wish our ballet companies were more integrated -- definitely (I used to fantasize that DTH and ABT would merge, and that would get it over with. Black dancers would be in a major company, looking great, and critical mass would do its wondrous work.) BUT the idea that people will go ONLY to performing arts events that are of their own group, I find that bothersome. Nothing to be done about it, but bothersome. When I taught dance appreciation at a local university, I had 8 African American students in a class of 60, and they were quite open about being interested -- several put it as "only being interested" in seeing tapes of black dancers. The question was raised constantly -- and it wasn't intended as political, but just interest and curiosity. "Aren't there any black ballerinas who dance Swan Lake?" "Why aren't you showing us black dancers." When we got to modern dance, that class saw the most bizarre collection, especially of postmodern works, because I ended up only showing the class companies that had at least one black dancer in a performance. Otherwise, I lost the black students in the class.

Perhaps company integration would solve this, but our companies have not, shall we say, made this a priority (we had a long discussion of racism in ballet awhile back and many of these issues were discussed there).

#4 liebs

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Posted 16 June 2001 - 09:33 PM

Although race is an issue, an important one, it is not the only factor. The Bolshoi last summer at the State Theatre had a heavily Russian audience and not one I usually see at NYCB or ABT. Given their reactions (applause at inappropriate moments, excitement over any little trick), I did not feel that they were a "ballet" audience - they came to see their country men. The same is true of "Riverdance," this isn't a dance audience, it is an Irish audience. Maybe with proper marketing, you could win some of these people over but not many of them.

If NYCB and ABT only advertise in the Times, I believe it is because their marketing budgets are so limited. How can they afford to spend money in places that don't guarantee a return on investment?

There are no easy answers to growing an audience, that's certainly clear.

#5 Diana L

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Posted 16 June 2001 - 09:44 PM

In terms of advertising, they're not necessarily guaranteed a return from the Times either. They don't have to add any cost, instead of running an add in the Times, New Yorker (also not your average read) split those between several papers. I bet most of your average working class New Yorker couldn't tell you when those companies are performing (except for the Nutcracker).

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 16 June 2001 - 09:54 PM

liebs, I agree that it's not just about race. I think it's a part of American history, too, that immigrant groups see/will support/feel comfortable with performers from the Old Country. There is a good long-term effect from that, in that some of the children and teens who're taken to these events WILL like whatever the art form is for its own sake.

I noticed the same thing at the Universal Ballet performances that you did about the
Bolshoi audience, by the way. (Another sign that the audience was not a dance audience but more a movie audience was that the candy tables were stripped bare by second intermission. Luckily, Minkus had foreseen this; it's hard to rattle candy louder than Minkus :)

#7 AmandaNYC

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Posted 16 June 2001 - 10:52 PM

Every two or three years, NYCB does audience surveys. This year they did the surveys on programs that had Swan Lake on the program, presumably b/c it brought in people who don't normally attend programs with ballets of which they have never heard. That's another issue for NYCB-- not only might they have trouble bringing in the less affluent (I volunteer a lot since, besides helping the company, it allows me to see many performances for free), but they also have trouble bringing in people who only think ballet is Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. Never having *clicked* with the full-lengths while still liking ballet, I only started attending perfs regularly when I discovered Balanchine.

I also want to note that a year or two ago the Post or Daily News (I don't remember which) raffled off/ gave away tickets for a NYCB perf-- they bought the house. The house was not nearly filled, but there were most definitely people there who had never been before (I worked the perf. and heard their comments). The audience was also more racially-balanced than a regular subscription perf. I wonder how many of the attendees ever came back.

-amanda

#8 Ed Waffle

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Posted 17 June 2001 - 06:49 PM

This is an issue that we in Detroit view with concern if not alarm. The ballet audience here seems stable, old, white and not with not enough people to support much of a season. The modern dance audience is largely missing. The Michigan Opera Theater has been acting as a producing organization for three or four ballet companies per year, with the ABT as the centerpiece. It is one of the many ways the MOT keeps the Detroit Opera House lit.

Chrysler (now DaimlerChrysler) has been the sponsor for ballet at the opera house, which is one reason how they have been able to afford half-empty houses. The recent messages from the general director of the MOT have had strong hints that this largesse may not continue to the same degree.

They have tried ethnic marketing—for Ballet Hispanico, for example, there was much more Spanish spoken in the auditorium than usual. There is a separate organization within the MOT structure for fundraising and support for ballet. Not much has helped to expand the audience. An indication of how bad things are is a comment overheard during the opera “Peter Grimes” last year—an opera, since it was modern, in English and depressing, had very little walk up business. “This is like a ballet house,” someone said, surveying the acres of empty seats.

One problem may be the house itself. The opera house has a seating capacity of 2,700 and anything less than 1,800 seems sparse. Just down the street is the Music Hall, a venerable structure that is a constant state of crisis. It has a very shallow stage, limited backstage facilities, a drab auditorium and an antiquated box office. It often seems to be on the verge of closing (there are three individuals in the arts community here who can truthfully say they “saved” the Music Hall at different times) but sells out several shows for the Dance Theater of Harlem and successfully produces a modern dance series each year.

The audience for DTH performances I have attended there, generally at least two per five or six show season, has been significantly African American. There are good reasons for this. Dance Theater of Harlem is as much a cultural as artistic event in Detroit. Some artists, sponsored by a local utility, are in town early doing outreach in high schools and community centers. This shows up in press coverage beyond the usual arts section article. The Music Hall itself is a familiar destination to black audience members—it has a well-attended jazz series and plays host to some comedians who draw African Americans.

So if things continue as they are—or, more likely get worse—the only professional ballet in Motown in the near future may be due to the efforts of the Music Hall and the African American residents of Detroit.


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