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Programming of Standards

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Next year will be my sixth year as a subscriber to Boston Ballet.

Despite the fact that I am a relatively new subscriber, I am already seeing some ballets for the second time. (Boston Ballet does three story ballets a year and two repertory programs.) We will see "Sleeping Beauty" this year for the second time in (I think) three years, and next year will be the second time for "La Fille.." (also in three years).

Personally, I would prefer Boston Ballet to put on something they haven't staged recently (Coppelia comes to mind).

What is your view about how often companies should stage the classics? Are some ballets worthy of being seen every two years or so?

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Wow, some ballets are worthy of being seen every season. When I go to see Sleeping Beauty, it changes subtly with every cast. I could see Fille several times in a season as well. More importantly, the dancers cannot grow a ballet into truly masterful performances without the opportunity to do it consistently, so put me firmly on the side of multiple performances of the same ballet, rather than shelving them for new works.

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In these bleak economic times, it is smart for a company to pull from sets, costumes, and ballets already in rep and therefore, in their respective costume and prop shops.

But I agree with Leigh, I could see those over and over and never tire of them!

Clara 76

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I second Leigh - as long as the ballets or the productions are good, of course.

I was really disappointed that the PA Ballet "rested" its new Swan Lake this season as I was out of town for the premiere last season. As I usually go to only one performance of a program, my only chance of catching multiple casts is if a ballet is scheduled season after season.

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This is a great topic!

So much depends on the company, and on the type of audience it wants to attract (not to mention its training needs, which is a facet I would never have thought of -- thanks for pointing that out). What programming will yield the biggest audience, as well as a good audience mix?

Fendrock, as a relative newcomer I do share your pain. I want to be exposed to a broad range of programming. I'm not quite ready to appreciate the nuances of this performance versus that one, this cast versus that. And you and I are committed ballet-goers -- subscribers, even. Think of the masses out there saying, "Yes, but I saw Sleeping Beauty two years ago. I'll go when they do something different."

In my case, the fact that my resident company is small exacerbates the problem. Chances are pretty good that when they mount Romeo and Juliet next year, I will see approximately the same cast I saw last year. Will they perform it somewhat differently? Almost certainly, but I'm not sure I'll even be able to tell; when you are not intimately familiar with a ballet, it's all something of a blur anyway.

On the other hand: some ballets are capable of sustaining long-term appeal. In point of fact, I am eagerly looking forward to Romeo and Juliet! And there is, after all, the example of Nutcracker. My kids practically insist that they will not see a Hubbard Street program (sorry -- modern dance, I know) that does not include Minus 16.

So ... is there a good mix of programming? Is there some magic formula?

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This is a great topic. There are several important factors in planning a season, and unless someone is in love with the Company or the main choreographer, a subscription plan is likely to be a neutral situation.

It costs a lot more to convince a person to "buy" for the first time than to sell to the converted. If an organization can convince someone who's nearly converted to show up multiple times, there are multiple benefits: deepening the person's affiliation with the Company, exposing them to more adventurous programming -- which could be a classic they've never seen before -- and putting butts in seats, as popularity breeds popularity. Even if a show or two per season is the equivalent of free, having a nearly full house has influence on one-time ticket buyers.

Subscriptions are also the lifeblood of cash flow. Since most subscription seasons are from fall to spring, a winter/spring subscription campaign can finance the summer cash drought. Maintaining and nurturing subscribers is a key function for most resident companies. But who is the elusive Subscriber?

Among subscribers are the hard-core, and even among the hard-core, for a Company like PNB or even ABT with mixed rep and classics there are, hard divisions in preferences: the people who want to see all full-lengths vs. the people who hate story ballets and the people who want to see new things all the time vs. the people who want repeats (of the stuff they like, but not the stuff they don't.) Then there are the new subscribers and the habitual long-term subscribers -- the "we've gome to the ballet the first Thursday for 15 years" group -- for whom there's generally a preference for the impossible: give us new things in the genre that we like and with which we feel comfortable. Think of all those triple-bills and the way they are assembled: the new ballet is sandwiched between a nice curtain-raiser and a popular closer, so that the audience doesn't decide to skip the performance or leave before it's ended. If the ballet fits one of those roles better -- and gets good reviews -- it can slot in the next season as the curtain-raiser or closer.

I think it was in Dance as a Contact Sport that Joseph Mazo reported on the creation of a NYCB subscription season in the 70's: you have to be sure that everyone sees what they missed -- unless of course, it was panned -- and doesn't get a repeat for at least a year. And what if that New Wheeldon, New Martins, New Eifman from Winter Season, which premiered after the Spring Season brochures are out and bringing in new subscriptions, is a bomb? The subscribers are annoyed that they have to see it. What if that ballet is a huge success? With only four-six performances scheduled, half of the subscribers are upset that it's not part of their subscription.

As Clara pointed out, there are economic considerations, particularly for smaller to medium size companies. I've noticed that for triple bills for these Companies, there might be one ballet with full corps, sometimes supplemented by apprentices and professional division students, but the other two with smaller casts. Rehearsal time and space is often limited, which would prohibit a program like Jewels from being presented on a regular basis. Other economic drivers include the number of outside resources (choreographers, stagers) needed to create/re-create a ballet, orchestral contracts -- how many performances can be staged contractually with taped music, chamber musicians vs. guaranteed performances for the orchestra, the amount of rehearsal time available for new music -- rights fees (choreography and music), whether a particular shared set/costume collection is available, and whether the Company's production is rented out to earn money. Not only are these issues for each program, but for the season on the whole.

The puzzle of arranging a season is probably the most difficult challenge for most Companies, with the exception of raising money. It was quite a service Robert Gottlieb performed for NYCB, when he took over season planning.

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You have to consider what it is about a ballet that makes it a "standard." Primarily, there's a level of artistic excellence that satisfies (and challenges, perhaps) the audience. Also, it offers roles to which dancers often point as milestones in their growth.

And of course, today's standards are yesterday's innovations -- I've seen it happen over the mere 30 years of my ballet-going experience!

There are also those ballets which -- how should I put this?? -- well, just because they're new doesn't mean they're good. :wink:

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Thanks, fendrock. You speak for many who rely on regional companies for our regular doses of ballet. We want the best of both worlds: the chance to see new work (to see the dancers and the company test themselves and grow); but also the chance to revisit the familiar, look at it more closely, and allow the dancers to grow into difficult roles (as Leigh says).

Maybe the problem at Boston is the ratio of 3 (full-length stories) to 2 (mixed bills). That demands either a lot of investment in large productions, or what seems to be occurring: frequent repetition. Perhaps something so simple as a switch to 2-to-3 would be worth trying.

Miami City Ballet, with 4 programs a year, tends to program 1 full-length almost every year, switching recently between the Balanchine Coppelia and Giselle. Villella also constructs full-lenth evenings out of works that were first programmed as one-acters: eg. Neighborhood Ballroom (A Ballet in Four Acts with Epilogue), which follows the character of the Poet from youth to old age through the progress of popular dance forms: waltz, quick-step, fox-trot, mambo, (with epilogue).

Helene, thanks for your thoughtful analysis. I wonder this: do ballet companies ever share (rent) productions the way regional opera companies do? (The much maligned Houston Dracula seems to be raking in the rentals.) That way, perhaps Miami could trade its Coppelia to Boston in exchange for something that would not make economic sense to create here? I'm talking here about sets, costumes, lighting plans, etc. Actual choreography could be left to the individual company if they didn't want to import it. Is this done at all? If not, I wonder why not? It has permitted Palm Beach Opera, for instance, to mount its own first rate productions, with its own casts and direction, but using beautiful sets, etc., from the Met, San Francisco, etc.

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ABT has three "shared" productions: Le Corsaire (with Boston), Raymonda (with Finnish National Ballet) and the upcoming Sylvia (with Britain's Royal Ballet). In all cases, the staging was shared. I don't know if the Actual sets and costumes are shared, but it was a single (multi-faceted) effort by each designer, reducing costs.

I know ABT replaced its extremely tacky original costumes for Corsaire after only a year or two. The new ones are based on the same designs, but small adjustments here and there did wonders to mitigate the cheap look of the originals. I don't know about Boston. Maybe you do, fendrock!

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As I recall, ABT also "shared" Othello with SF Ballet, even exchanging principal dancers between the two companies.

Speaking of SFB, the pattern seems to be that after premiering a new production of a full-length ballet (such as Don Quixote or Giselle), they generally do an "encore" the following year, and then let it rest for a while before reviving it again. (They didn't let Giselle "rest" very long before they brought it back again, though. Not that that's a bad thing.) As far as ratios go, the company does Nutcracker and eight separate "programs" in its season, of which two are usually (though not always) full-length ballets. This season it's Giselle and Romeo and Juliet (Tomasson). In general, they revive premieres of one-acts the following year as well. I generally think this works pretty well, complaints about specific programs notwithstanding. There are some ballets I could watch year after year and never get tired of, and others that I see once and hope never to see again, and still others that fall somewhere in between.

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I'll add a 'yes' to all the thoughtful discussions of why and how companies decide what to program -- it is indeed a complex issue, and as much driven by the dynamics of a particular audience as it is by aesthetic or financial considerations.

As a critic, I frequently get a chance to see multiple casts during a single run, but like everyone, I love to see how artists develop in a role over time, which usually means longer than the couple of weekends my local company has any one program up. And like everyone, if it's a ballet I like, I'm thrilled to see it return quickly, while if it's something I'm not so fond of I spend a chunk of time thinking "but they could be doing 'fill in the blank'."

In dance we have such a tradition of new work that it's harder to find chances to see older productions -- many times it just seems easier to make something fresh rather than gather together all the elements to bring something else back. I'm always heartened to see revivals and restagings of older work, as well as to see something that I consider a "signature" of a certain company (I used to feel this way about Serenade at NYCB, some of the earlier Arpino's and Green Table for Joffrey, Sylphides for ABT, though I haven't seen them in it for quite some time.)

[As far as sharing productions is concerned, I know that one of the reasons the ballet was glad to see the local opera house remodeled was that the size and proportion of the proscenium arch would be changed to conform with more standard theaters, which would mean they could buy and borrow other productions more easily. I think there's a bit more buying than borrowing in general (perhaps having to do with costume fitting) -- PNB's production of Merry Widow came from somewhere else, as did their Sleeping Beauty. And their old version of Swan Lake is going to Oregon Ballet Theater now that they have a new production designed by Ming Cho Lee.]

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PNB's MERRY WIDOW came from La Scala via Royal Danish. BEAUTY came from English National. Owning a ballet instead of renting allow more control over the look of the scenery and costumes, and one is more apt to sink money into maintenance of the production if it is owned. Buying an existing production, especially a full-length, is relatively new to PNB, which has its own costume and scenic shops.

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PNB's MERRY WIDOW came from La Scala via Royal Danish.  BEAUTY came from English National.  Owning a ballet instead of renting allow more control over the look of the scenery and costumes, and one is more apt to sink money into maintenance of the production if it is owned.  Buying an existing production, especially a full-length, is relatively new to PNB, which has its own costume and scenic shops.

Thanks Doug -- I couldn't remember the family history of these productions and was too lazy to look it up at the moment!

And excellent point about owning versus renting -- I guess in this way ballet is like home ownership...

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