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Mel Johnson

Boston Ballet Box Office Woes

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From Christine Temin's review in the Boston Globe...

"And developing dance makers are what the ballet world needs - globally, but particularly in Boston, which lacks a loyal public for dance. Boston Ballet is in dire need of an audience. The company recently danced ''Onegin,'' the finest story ballet it has ever presented, in the Wang Theatre. Ticket sales were pitiful, only 7,000 seats in all. At the Wang, that's less than the equivalent of two full houses, spread across 12 performances. "

Is this true? If it is, BB has it's work cut out in the next year. A company that size cannot survive such terrible Box Office. Good grief: that's selling approx 17% of avail seating!

What happened? Did the public lose interest during all the controversies in leadership? Did BB get out of touch with their audience? Have they failed to build audience over the last few years?

Is the huge Wang Center (and its huge rent) a mistake?

Is anyone else as shocked as I am? This is supposed to be a top ten company; it has a new & exciting Artistic Director; received very strong critical praise for its first three programs...???

Would someone from Boston (my home town) please illuminate the situation?

Thanks,

Watermill

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I have no idea what the problem is, but I do know that this represents a substantial and scary change at Boston Ballet.

I do know that under Anna Marie Holmes' artistic direction that Boston Ballet was constantly sold out -- and often added weekday matinee shows -- when they performed full length ballets. Rep programs always sold less.

In my opinion Boston Ballet has terribly mistreated members of the organization, both artistic and administrative. Reading Bruce Marks' recent interview he pointed out that the company fired or lost every administrative and artistic staff member from his watch save one -- conductor Jonathan McFee. He sounded upset and I think he said something like it takes a lot of effort to do that to a company.

I suspect that the Boston Ballet Board has been attempting to restructure the AD position to one whose artistic vision is subordinate to the Board's, and to find someone who will be a figure head and not a strong artistic advocate. Both Bruce Marks and Anna Marie Holmes seemed to have clear artistic vision and stong wills. Anna Marie Holmes was pushed out and I wonder why Bruce Marks left a company that he built into a magnificent organization.

I believe, and I have no evidence at all to back this up, that Maina Gielgud left abruptly before even beginning her first year because her vision of the AD position was different than the Board's. I don't believe she fired all of those dancers, merely carried out the mandate of the BB Board.

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I've moved this into the Boston Ballet forum, and hope that other Bostonians will comment. Box office woes are a general problem, but this one seems case specific. (Of course, non-bostonians are welcome to chime in :cool: )

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I dance for the other ballet company in Boston, Jose Mateo's Ballet Theatre. It exists to produce the work of its own artistic director/choreographer, and for the past several years has received excellent reviews from the very same Christine Temin and other dance critics. The company has no problem selling seats and is not running into budgetary "surprises" due to lack of ticket sales at the moment (although admittedly, it has much fewer seats to sell).

Mr. Mateo has his own ideas of what's wrong with BB. Most of these problems are things he thinks is wrong with most of the way ballet is done, not Boston Ballet specifically. At the risk of sounding critical of an organization I know little about (BB), I will repeat, these are things wrong IN GENERAL with ballet, not with any specific organization:

* Outdated acting style (acting has changed in the past 100 years in other theater arts, except for ballet)

* Outdated narrative style.

* Full-length ballets are too long for a modern audience.

* Too much performance of works by dead choreographers. (Ballet is a living art, and seems to work best when the choreographer is alive and can be right there working with the company).

* Lack of choreographic consistency in Nutcrackers (most are done by many choreographers)

* Movement style that reads as "unnatural" and "aloof" to an audience (modern audiences respond better to the "personal connection" more common in modern dance).

* Lack of integration between training of dancers and the choreography danced by those dancers (Balanchine had this, but many large ballet organizations do not).

BB could very well be a top ten company. That means it has a good budget and is able to hire great dancers with it. John Cranko was no slouch of a choreographer either; Onegin is considered a real masterpiece. All that could be true. But if the Boston audience isn't "there" with the company, it just won't come. Boston audience is notoriously difficult for dance, so please give BB some credit for its efforts.

People I know who saw Onegin were pleased with it.

The Wang Center might be a mistake. However, getting an "appropriately sized" theater in Boston is really hard. Maybe the Emerson Majestic, at just under 1000 seats, would be more appropriate for Boston Ballet's rep performances. I do not know whether they have investigated options other than the Wang.

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Perhaps boston Ballet needs to pay more attention to the people of Boston.By that I mean the company needs to do more to draw the audiences in.I suppose it is a job for the development department as well as the artistic staff.Bostonians like to feel like they are part of something.I would venture to say like a special club.They all want to be a member before their neighbor does.I don't think the company has really done much in the way of making people belive they are the hot ticket.There are so many exciting things that happen every day in Boston and Boston Ballet misses out.The company also needs to represent all of its members consistently.(Even dancers who have been in the company for a while.)Audience members like to see certain people and if they are still in the company,but don't get used,the select audience members may stop coming.(I mention this because something like it was mentioned in a review during Onegin)Maybe the company needs to do something exciting that only shows a bit of dancing to whet someones appetite so they'll buy tickets for the real thing,Maybe they should collaborate with someone on a big production.The posssibilities are endless....

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I'm going to split off citibob's list of "what's wrong with ballet in general" and put it up on Subtexts and Contexts under Aesthetic Issues for discussion.

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I'm not from Boston, but am throwing in my two cents based on what I've seen in Philadelphia. A 3,500 seat theater is HUGE (similar to the Academy of Music in Philly) and the only time I've seen the Academy totally full is for Nutcracker. Other performances get quite full, but that is based on a limited run (6-8 peformances.) 12 performances seems awfully ambitious.

And, let's face it, Onegin is not a household name. Not even close. In the general public, two ballet names are well known: Nutcracker and Swan Lake (if the people have ever had any contact with the art form, we can add Giselle, Coppelia, and Sleeping Beauty to that list.) The only other story ballets that seem to have a huge turn-out in Philadelphia are based on popular stories like Cinderella and Dracula.

Onegin also suffers from having a difficult-to-pronounce name, a fairly adult storyline, and a choreographer who is not a household name either. I hate to be pessimistic, especially since the reviews of the production were so wonderful, but I think that Onegin is not the type of full-length ballet that people are flocking to see.

Bostonians, feel free to prove me wrong. I know that Onegin, Le Corsaire, La Bayadere, etc., sell out in NYC, but do they sell well in your city?

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Hi Tessa,

In the past, just about every full length ballet nearly has sold out -- or at least sold extremely well -- in Boston. Boston audiences sold out 3 full weeks of Sleeping Beauty a few years ago, and weekday matinee performances were added. Similarly, all the full lengths of the past few years -- La Bayadere, Cleopatra, Don Quixote, Giselle, Dracula, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Madame Butterfly -- sold very well.

Rep programs have always sold less, but the theater seldom seemed that empty, except for occasional triple bills. The kind of attendance that would result in 7000 total tickets sold over 12 performaces is not quite 600 people per performance. The Wang has a 3800 seat capacity.

My question is does a Board do anything in the middle of a season when the first two runs sell this poorly? Does a company with a budget like BB's have some cushion or would this put them in some sort of budget crisis? Does anyone know what happens when a company suddenly loses that much in attendance?

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If a board is both smart AND lucky, they've been able to build a sort of "rainy day fund" into the budget, but how often do we see those qualities in combination?:)

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I'm still digesting "3500 seats." That's almost the Met!

The Kennedy Center Opera House is only about 2200, and is not always sold out, even for big name companies, like the Royal.

If the attendance has fallen off that much, it is an interesting question. Boston Ballet has been doing a lot of press -- we get a press release a week from them, it seems, often on new classes they're starting for this group or that, and very detailed releases about the programs, etc.

One difference that's very notable here is how much of a difference subscribers make. When a company comes for two weeks, and one week is on subscription and one is not, the difference in attendance is noticeable (the nonsubscription week has the empty seats).

I wonder -- and this is pure speculation! -- if the drop off has been in subscriptions? When a company has a bad year or two -- or there's a perception of instability -- sometimes people want to hold off on subscribing. Also, of course, change -- any change -- means it takes a few years for the audience to adjust.

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Just wondering...how is the economy affecting ballet companies in general? I can see where if half your college fund has been lost in the stock market, a subscription might change to one or two carefully chosen performances.

Re Boston in particular, given the management had dismissed at least one of their most popular dancers before reinstating her, could that tend to leave the audience feeling a bit like chumps?

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I have been reading articles that indicate that subscriptions in general are dropping as a result of the economy. People are more reluctant to plunk down a substantial sum of money in advance.

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I'm going to take my New Yorker hat off here and toss it the ring, so I don't get beat up on.

Seeing as NY isn't that far from Boston, I can barely say I ever see anything on them, publicity wise. I don't think I've ever seen an ad in the NY Times (other regional companies do take out ads).

I don't know if they bring in guest stars, sometimes that seems to jolt audiences (look at both ABT and NYCB in NY doing it)

and I think they need to find a rep that's consistent.

I don't even see Onegin, I'm not even sure of it's correct pronunciation. I can't imagine new people would want to go to see a ballet for the first time, in a piece they've never heard of.

Back to the basic storybooks, Swan Lake, R&J, Sleeping Beauty.

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Ah, but we're not absorbing what SusanB wrote earlier:

"In the past, just about every full length ballet nearly has sold out -- or at least sold extremely well -- in Boston. Boston audiences sold out 3 full weeks of Sleeping Beauty a few years ago, and weekday matinee performances were added. Similarly, all the full lengths of the past few years -- La Bayadere, Cleopatra, Don Quixote, Giselle, Dracula, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Madame Butterfly -- sold very well. "

Taking consideration of the difficulties mentioned I would expect Onegin to perhaps sell 60% ....BUT NOT 17%!!!

I am suggesting that the bottom has fallen out and unless the Curse of the Bambino has climbed into tights and a tutu I still await a reason for it...

Watermill...rounding third...

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I thought we'd absorbed it :) Susan B was noting a change in attendance patterns, and we're trying to guess why :)

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Sorry...in a bit of a rush...I was refering to Calliope's concern Onegin is too obscure to sell many seats. But that flies in the face of the facts as SusanB has presented them. A popular company trying out a risky unfamiliar full length still sells half the house, because it's built up a trusting (and hopefully subscibed) audience willing to give it a chance. This seems to not be the case in Boston. So what happened? I agree that the first place to look is the subscription base. What about other Boston sized cities? How are they doing for audience?

Watermill

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it's not kid or date friendly!

All the other full lengths (with the exception of Bayadere) are pretty known stories.

I think many companies are feeling a bit of a pinch, and some companies seem to be shrinking "dancer wise"

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I can hear the marketing now. An official-sounding pronouncement at the end of any audio commercial, "This ballet is recommended for mature audiences." The kids will flock to it!;)

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Calliope,

I agree that Onegin is not kid friendly, but neither is Don Q, Bayadere, Hunchback or Giselle. Frankly, I only think of Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella as ballets that pull kids out in droves, many of them dusting off their tiaras for the occasion. But Onegin is a dramatic love story tragedy sort of ballet and would be a perfect date ballet. Boston advertises extensively in Boston, in print and on tv and radio.

I was at a fundraiser for BB two years ago and I was speaking to a gentleman who told me he had donated some of his dot com stock to the company and had become one of their *big doners* with all of the requiste treatment. During the conversation he mentioned that some people had decided to withhold support for the company because of the tumultous situtation. I don't know how BB has been affected in terms of giving but now, recalling that conversation, I am wondering if alienation is a sizeable part of the ticket sales problem.

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I'd take children to see Don Q -- it's a comedy, it's lots and lots of dancing. I once got an 11-year-old boy to come with me to "Giselle" by saying it's a ghost story, and in the second act a bad woman tries to dance the man to death. "Ma! Can I go???" He liked it.

In DC, the "full lengths," especially matinees, are usually chock full of children. I might demur at Hunchback, but not the others.

But to Susan's more central point, there could well have been supporters of particular dancers, staff, etc at BB who are upset with what happened and are withholding both their money and their presence. Whether that would cause the very noticable dip in attendance though would be hard to say.

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It seems to me that, if people were staying away due to chaotic management, last year would have been the year to do it, as the season ran without even a full-time artistic director.

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Before I entered this discussion I was hoping to tap into some sources for more accurate info on Onegin ticket sales, but haven't yet. So this is an educated guess. I'm pretty sure that more than 7000 tickets were sold, including subscriptions, over the two week period. We went twice on weekend nights. The first week the orchestra (which seats 1800) was between 1/3 and half full. The dress circle seats 600. The balcony/mezzanine seats 1400. There are subscribers in both the dress circle and balcony/mezzanine as well as the orchestra. If the DC was 1/3 full and the balcony 1/4 full then maybe there would have been 1100+ that one night. If I assume the other weekend evening and opening nights were similar that would account for 3300 for only 3 performances the first week. The second weekend we went there were noticeably more people there - some repeaters like us, some for the first time. There was a line of people waiting to buy or pickup tickets when we arrived, the lobby was more crowded, seats filled farther back in the orchestra, etc. Not sold out but far from empty. So imagine the second two weekend night performances had maybe 1500 each. (And I'm making low estimates). That would bring the attendance for 5 performances to 6300. Nothing I've heard suggests that the remaining 7 performances were nearly empty. I'm assuming the number Temin quoted was wrong, based on partial data or some misunderstanding.

I have heard that subscription sales for Boston Ballet have been going well, with much interest in how the company is doing under its new management and direction.

FWIW - we know a couple who used to be subscribers but are now caught up in child rearing and exurban living. They came with us to the new choreography progarm, loved it, remembered Onegin from a performance in Boston years ago and got another couple to join them for that. I guess the point is that this is the third time BB has performed Onegin so it is not completely unfamiliar. Nevertheless, it would have been nice if even more people had come.

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Just to set the record straight: As I understand it, the 7,000 tickets number for Onegin was only for single ticket sales. I believe BB has some 12,000 subscribers, so the total attendance at Onegin was more like 19,000. And yes, there has been much tumult at the company over the past few years, but new management is in place and things seem to be settling down. I hope so, because it's a wonderful company!

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Thank you for clarifying that, jmbailey, and welcome to Ballet Alert! Online :) We are all hoping that things will work out well for the Boston Ballet, which is indeed a very fine company!

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I would also like to thank jmbailey for providing the answer to to a situation I found unbelievable.

In the same breath, I would like to invite Ms. Temin of the Globe to to get her facts straight before publishing outrageous statistics that get me all in a dither!

Now I can go back to worrying about the Red Sox...

Watermill

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