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Los Angeles and ballet: what's the problem?


bart

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In today's LINKS, Mme. Hermine posts an LA Times article about the attempt to establish a new Los Angeles ballet company. I was astonished by the skepticism and cynicism of the writer, who seems to be predicting failure even before the group's first venture (a Nutcracker) hits the stage.

We have a lot of California residents and California watchers. What do you think about the past failure to establish a viable company in LA? Or of the prognosis for the future? LA has so much money, so manye educated people, so many people involved in all the performing arts -- I just don't get it.

Here's the Link: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-ed-...pinion-leftrail

And here are two paragraphs:

OF COURSE WE'RE rooting for the new Los Angeles Ballet, which will debut Dec. 2 at the Wilshire Theatre with a production of (what else?) the "Nutcracker." Still, it's hard to ignore the historical odds against ballet in the L.A. area. The company may begin with the graceful arabesques of Clara, but we have to brace ourselves for the thud of "Swan Lake's" Odette dumped to the floor during the pas de deux by a feckless Siegfried we call "the public."

[ ... ]

Now two notable ballet dancers, Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, are putting their best slippers forward as artistic directors. Their L.A. Ballet will be affiliated with the respected Westside School of Ballet and make its permanent home at the Malibu Performing Arts Center. In a canny move, its version of "Nutcracker" will be performed at three venues around the county, hoping to draw viewers by chopping their commutes.

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The ballet scene in LA is a very odd one...like you said bart, there's a lot of oney to be had and many educated people. But think of the major industry you have out there.....movies. Dance has to compete with that and you have people who are always looking for something new. Simply put, you can get more people into a theatre by "renting" several companies in a season rather than presenting the same one all year, even if they show up with different rep. There was discussion of this on the other board as well, and having danced in Southern CA myself, there is just too much competition between the smaller companies for there to be a company with any real success. I hope the new LA Ballet does well...there is a lot of talent in Southern CA that has had to leave to find any opportunity to dance....

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There is something else going on there, too. Not only are the people doing movies and TV, but in my all-too-short stay there, I noticed that the arts are highly parochialized. Actors and directors watch TV and go to movies, and maybe the Pasadena Playhouse if they have a friend on. Producers go to BelAir and don't come out. Tech people have families and spend their time with them. There are quite a lot of talented dancers there, but they're always trying to get into ABT or Broadway. Musicians give and go to concerts. Fine Arts people don't get involved with Performing Arts. Hardly anybody crosses over. It's the strangest thing!

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The article points up one key problem which is distance. I think there are a decent number of ballet fans in Southern California, but they're dispersed across significant distances and commuting becomes a major issue. (It's obviously something that the new company is trying to address by splitting their "Nutcracker" performances across three separate venues). When I hear about a ballet performance I want to see here, the first thing I start calculating is how much traffic am I likely to hit at performance time and how long will it take me to get there and get back, and it's usually quite significant considering the Music Center is downtown (a nightmare after 7) and the OCPAC requires going down the 405 (just a nightmare).

It's very different from when I lived five blocks from Lincoln Center and would go to performances 3 times a week on a whim.

I also think it's hard to keep a resident company of anything going in Los Angeles is difficult, but doubly so when the members can't really support themselves with commercials, voiceovers, music videos, etc. which I think does help the resident acting troupes and hip hop dancers.

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The article points up one key problem which is distance. I think there are a decent number of ballet fans in Southern California, but they're dispersed across significant distances and commuting becomes a major issue.
New York City also has distance issues -- but it does at least have a widespread subway system.

It seems that Miami City Ballet has distance problems similar to LA's. Virtually the entire eastern coast of South Florida from well south of Miami to north of West Palm Beach is a single metropolitan corridor composed of many urban centers. MCB deals with this by performing each program, first in Miami and shortly thereafter in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm. Ditto the Nutcracker. These seems a viable alternative for the LA area.

South Florida and metro LA also have something else in common -- a potentially vast group of donors with deep pockets, many of whom are genuinely in love with the performing arts, and others of whom at least know that the arts bring social prestige. This works for the LA Opera and the Philharmonic; why not for ballet as well, if they can attract a big name similar to those two other institutions? Is there a ballet equivalent to Domingo, Mehta, Giulini, Previn, or Salonen available?

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New York City also has distance issues -- but it does at least have a widespread subway system.

The public transportation system helps A LOT in New York. Even if you're coming from outside the city, you have a fairly reliable idea how long it will take to get into the city, and then how long the subway ride will be. For me, driving to the Music Center could take anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half (sometimes more). Going down to OCPAC is even harder to gage.

It seems that Miami City Ballet has distance problems similar to LA's. Virtually the entire eastern coast of South Florida from well south of Miami to north of West Palm Beach is a single metropolitan corridor composed of many urban centers. MCB deals with this by performing each program, first in Miami and shortly thereafter in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm. Ditto the Nutcracker. These seems a viable alternative for the LA area.

I think this is what the newly created company in LA is trying to imitate by performing its "Nutcracker" in three different venues around the county. Hopefully, it will help.

This works for the LA Opera and the Philharmonic; why not for ballet as well, if they can attract a big name similar to those two other institutions? Is there a ballet equivalent to Domingo, Mehta, Giulini, Previn, or Salonen availalbe?

While I think a ballet superstar would help immeasurably, I think the LA Opera and the Philharmonic have other advantages. I think the LA Opera scatters it performances throughout the year (3-4 performances a week for a few weeks, then another couple performances a month later and so on), which I don't know is a viable model for a ballet company. And the Philharmonic is helped out A LOT by the Hollywood Bowl season, which is a Los Angeles institution. (The Bowl also provides park-and-ride public transport assistance). I think there's a pretty good percentage of people who would picnic at the Bowl whether the Philharmonic was playing or not.

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I think the LA Opera scatters it performances throughout the year (3-4 performances a week for a few weeks, then another couple performances a month later and so on), which I don't know is a viable model for a ballet company.

This is the model used by the Joffrey in Chicago -- a fall performance, Nutcracker, a mid-winter performance, and a spring performance. The same program is danced 3-4 times per week for two weeks (Nuts has a different, more extended schedule). It's definitely a different model from the multi-week, multi-program "season" that other companies use. It seems to work well for a culture in which people would not go to the ballet several times in a week to see different programs (although people DID do this when NYCB came through, and on the occasions when Bolshoi or ABT offer different programs in the week they are here, so maybe things are changing). It also seems to me the only sensible schedule for a small company that hasn't the depth to keep several programs in production at once.

What proportion of the audience in NYC are visitors to the city?

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This is the model used by the Joffrey in Chicago -- a fall performance, Nutcracker, a mid-winter performance, and a spring performance. The same program is danced 3-4 times per week for two weeks (Nuts has a different, more extended schedule). It's definitely a different model from the multi-week, multi-program "season" that other companies use.
When you think about it, variations of this format are almost universal in Amercan ballet. NYCB and ABT are the exceptions here.

The difference from company to company involve the number of performances per program: one week of as few as 3-4 performances in smaller cities; 2 weeks,as with the Joffrey in Chicago. The bigger the audience, the more performances. The largest number of performances within this format is San Francisco. Nutcrackers and fund-raising "galas" fill in the year.

It's something a company can add to as the audience (one hopes) grows. Every local/regional company started out small.

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I seem to remember having part of this conversation (a series of single program concerts through the year v multiple weeks of mix-it-up rep) recently, that time having to do with the differing challenges on the performers. Bart puts his finger on it when he mentions the growth patterns of most dance companies. The first option is far more popular in the US, except for a few groups like NYCB and ABT, that have concentrated seasons where they keep multiple ballets in rehearsal.

In Seattle, PNB tried a variation of this several years ago, where they presented two different programs in a performance slot, then presented the same works again in the next slot -- the idea being that subscribers in one group would see "A" first and then "B," while subscribers in the other group would reverse the order. I wasn't a subscriber at that time and so don't know how it was promoted to them, but if I recall correctly it didn't last more than a year.

One of the elements that goes into making these choices has to do with the available venue. Frequently ballet shares a theater with opera, as well as other large proscenium groups, and the rhythm of the performances has to match in some fashion. In San Francisco, the opera uses the theater in the autumn, so that SFB opens their non-Nut season in January and runs almost non-stop until late May. In Seattle and Portland, the ballet companies alternate with the opera (and other tenants), so both ballet and opera seasons start in Sept/Oct and last until May/June, with sometimes as much as four weeks between programs (that is, between ballet programs -- if you go to both ballet and opera the turnaround is much quicker).

The current assumption about subscribers is that they would rather spread their art events out during the year, rather than a shorter, more intense experience. People will come to festival events (a different show every couple evenings, like a Ring cycle), but anything longer than a week is difficult. PNB is doing a festival in April (focussed on choreographers from the Northwest), essentially bridging the time between two different regular rep programs, and it will be very interesting to see how those performances sell (and to whom).

The other part of the equation that Bart mentions is how companies add performances of a rep as they grow. With luck and good marketing, the multiple venue structure could work for this new LA group, as it has for Miami. Generally, the lack of additional venues keeps a company in a single location, and they have to find ways to bring audience to them.

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I lived in southern cal 8 years and am quite familiar with the lovely freeways and the two hours it would take me to go the 12 miles from my house to H'wood during rush hour. During the '80's I remember ABT coming for 3 WEEKS to Los Angeles. And having to compete with the Phil for the Music Center. The orchestra used to complain about "dancers tights drying in the dressing rooms" etc. So then, ABT performed at Shrine Auditorium. Try filling a house that seats 6000! Baryshnikov was the draw that did that, but dancing on that huge stage, and using their ancient backstage facilities was never good. Then, when OCPAC was built, ABT had a new place to call home. But after Baryshnikov left, I never remember any more 3 week seasons. Now the Phil has the new Gehry Disney Hall, and ABT is free to visit Dorothy Chandler again without complaint. And like LA Ballet, they are planning a week in LA and a week in Orange County. The more the merrier.

Boston Ballet is another company that does short programs (aprox. 1 week--sometimes single works: DonQ, sometimes mixed-rep) scattered over the fall/spring, and usually saves the multi-act story ballets for the longer runs. Their Nutcracker fills the coffers; though, like many other companies, the touring Rockettes forced them from the Wang Ctr. to the Opera House. The other change BB did, was seating in the Wang Center. They completely closed the balcony to tickets (only the Mezz left open) and charged accordingly. One of the reasons I preferred to travel all the way to NYC instead--even with the cost of transport (and sometimes hotels) I had better seats, at less cost, to see great ballets and dancers. But cutting back the seating within a house may offer the new LAB an option too.

I am VERY glad LA Ballet is travelling to different venues in the county--more people can see them, learn, and hopefully build a bigger audience. One of my other peeves with BB, they never come to the western part of MA, like it doesn't exist past 128. Thank goodness for Jacob's Pillow and SPAC. And MA is not even as big as Orange Cty, CA.

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Thanks, 4mrdncr, for the detailed information on LA (and Boston). A number of companies solicit foundation -- and other philanthropic -- support for outreach to low income groups and kids. Why not seek funds to allow reaching out to under-served geographical areas outside their traditional urban markets?

4mrdncr: I attended schools lin both western and eastern Mass, so I have a couple of questions about BB's options in that area.

Wouldn't there be an audience and large theater (for at least one performance) for a tour to Springfield, Worcester, Providence, Portland, UConn at Storrs, The 5 Colleges and UMass in the Northhampton-Amherst-Holyoke area, and perhaps elswhere? Also, is there an arts centers in the Boston suburbs that could host one or two performances a year? North Side or near Exeter, for instance? Major ballet and symphonic groupsregularly perform at the very successful Tilles Center on Long Island, and that's only an hour away from Manhattan!!!

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