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Boston Ballet Boosterism


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I was at an introductory talk with Mikko Nissenen. Nissenen said that he hoped that Boston would come to follow and root for the Boston Ballet almost as if it were a sports team.

The idea was that people would come to see the Ballet because they loved it and supported it, and not simply because they knew it was easy to watch and be entertained by [fill in the blank -- The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, etc.].

Thus, untraditional ballet opened the season, and, sadly, Boston audiences were true to form in that they stayed away in droves.

My question -- how would you advise Mr. Nissenen on how to make his vision of Boston Ballet and its audience a reality?

Here's a first suggestion -- season subscribers get tickets at low or no cost to a second viewing of less popular ballets. This increases attendance, and enables those interested to further educate themselves (by seeing the same ballet twice) OR by enabling them to pass the tickets along to people who otherwise wouldn't go because of the cost.

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Why should a community support a ballet company just because it's there? The company has to earn the community's attentions. Programming is an art, and knowing one's audience takes time. It may have been wiser to open with something familiar, let the audience see that the dancing is good, then bring in something you want to program later. But a director who tries to shove anything down the audience's throat -- whether it be contemporary dance or the 800th Swan Lake -- is in for a jolt, I think.

I don't think giving tickets away is a viable alternative -- people have to want to see it enough to pay for it. A discount to subscribers is often done, but a buy one get one free might be too expensive -- if liebs sees this, she may have a comment.

I must say that " The idea was that people would come to see the Ballet because they loved it and supported it, and not simply because they knew it was easy to watch and be entertained by [fill in the blank -- The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, etc.]." seems rather condescending, as though anyone who wanted to see a Sleeping Beauty was neither intelligent nor discriminating.

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Maybe I didn't express myself very well... story ballets sell the most tickets (at least in Boston), but it dance companies want to do other things as well.

How best to sell more tickets to other types of ballets?

A recent Boston Globe writer did emphaize that the Boston Ballet would not be opening with the usual story ballet -- suggesting that that was a good thing.

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No, I think you expressed yourself very clearly, fendrock and it's a good question. I think it's a very good goal to have the community be a "booster" for the company; my point was merely that they have to have something to boost.

I think the way you expand the repertory is, as I wrote above, to start with the familiar and add in unfamiliar works as the audience begins to trust you. (I can't claim credit for this idea at all. It's the way directors and presenters have been doing it for decades)

It is hard to do new work, and I think fendrock makes a very good point that often one needs to take a second or third look at a piece to make up one's mind about it. One of the problems, I think, is because of the way small and mid-sized ballet companies program their seasons: three or four set programs throughout the year, rather than, as a larger company can do, have a real repertory season with programs that change, so you can slip in a new work, an experimental work, or something totally different from what the audience is used to seeing, and it won't sink the program. People might come because they're familiar with the other ballets on the bill that night, or drawn by a dancer. They may or may not like the new work, but they won't object to having seen it -- and they may like it. It can be programmed the following season, and the audience may like it better then. This is very hard to do in the three-show season, because each piece has to be a HIT, and audiences will be wary of buying a ticket to something that is completely unfamiliar, until the company gets to the stage where you'll say, "I've never heard of any of those guys, but the last two years have been great, and I'm going to take a chance on this one."

(There's been a discussion of Ms. Temin's opinion on another thread. One of the reasons we began Ballet Alert!, an advocacy site for classical and neoclassical ballet, was to present alternatives to this view. :( ) A general note that's related to this topic, as this company's first program of the season was contemporary or crossover dance: I thought I should point out, as we have new posters joining continuously, and as Ballet Alert! is sometimes misunderstood, we've nothing against contemporary dance per se. I began the newsletter, and later the site, because I had become alarmed at the attitude that classical ballet is silly/old-fashioned/museum/not good enough for the young, all the things that are sometimes said about it, and wanted to draw attention to ballet as a separate branch of dancing. Ballet is a language. If you don't speak it, you lose it. If companies perform crossover, or tap, or modern dance, or whatever, that's not troublesome, as long as ballet remains at the company's core. If it predominates, and if the dancers sense that this is where the director's heart is, and the only reason they're doing Swan Lake is for those people who don't get it, who don't think, who just go to ballet because it's pretty, etc. etc. etc. , it won't be a ballet company. I raise this point here only as an explanation to those who may, quite reasonably, think, "What's the big deal?"

There are several interviews on the main site of Ballet Alert! on this topic. One of them is with Bruce Marks, former director of Boston Ballet, and one of the people who was a vigorous advocate of crossover dance, who's changed his opinion. If it's of interest, here's the link:


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I didn't read that statement as being condescending to the classics, but more indicative of the issue of familiarity. It's not that Swan Lake or The Nutcracker are classical, or entertaining, or simpleminded, it's that they are known quantities. Audiences wouldn't go to see La Fille Mal Gardee either because they didn't know what it was (didn't Hurok want to retitle it?); they might not even see La Sylphide at this point. Even the contemporary repertory is limited to known quantities (At this point, I'd call In the Middle a "chestnut".)

I think and hope what Nissinen is asking for is for the general audience to be interested in the company as much as in individual ballets, and to trust them that if one buys a ticket to something unfamiliar, it will be worth seeing. He wants a loyal audience, and I understand that. The corrollary of that of course, is that the company has be doing work of consistent interesting quality that people enjoy watching.

It's not easy to get what he's asking for (essentially, trust in his curatorship). The company needs to build familiarity in the community. I saw a joke in a Louisville paper which said in effect that you know you're from Louisville when you know the city has a ballet company and a symphony but you don't really know what they do. It was funny in a painful way. A company also needs to build a "buzz" about itself. I recall a conversation with a friend where he said that someone needed to see something independently mentioned in three different places - an ad, word of mouth, a review, a poster, the news - before s/he started to think about attending. Whether these items belong to world of arts or marketing can be debated, but I think that is some of what generates an audience on a budget-sustaining level.

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Well,I think Boston ,as a city needs to become as interested in ballet as they are in sports,or the symphony,or even the theatre...The thing is that nobody wants to pay for anything they are unfamiliar with .The Boston Lyric Oprea recently performed,"Carmen" on the Boston Common which was free to the public.What other way to get people who would never go to the Opera to go?Boston Ballet should do something similar.Have free performances to introduce the artform to the general public. I think they used to do something like that but using the second company.They should use the main company so that people see what they are really getting if they pay for tickets.Another thing would be to go out to the different communities in the area.There are many people for whom ballet is not accessable,or they think it isn't,or they think it is boring.Perhaps the company should make an effort to include the part of Boston that is not all Baecon Hill wealthy and focus on the up and comers of tomorrow.There are alot of students in the various universities in Boston that would go to the ballet on a date.It is a great way for a guy to impress a girl.Do something to show these people that it isn't an elitist stuffy/artform....Host a party or something.They should really use everybody they have in the company because there might be someone that alot of people want to see.Word will get out and you know....

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When I went to school in Boston (in the Paleozoic. . .) most of the dance companies in Boston (Boston Ballet and the smaller modern troupes, which at that time were Beth Soll's company, Dinosaur and few others) would all perform on First Night, which was an immensely popular and fun event, and a great outreach into the community. I recall walking all through downtown Boston, going from music recital to dance concert to contra dance. You really felt a part of the city! Does that still happen?

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Yes, Boston still has First Night. I've only been once, and it was a bit of a zoo.

I agree with Bijoux that potential audience members need to be educated.

I envision smaller programs in a more intimate venue. (The Wang is very large, and the cheaper seats are high enough to leave one gasping for air.) The pieces should be short and easy on the eyes, so that they can appeal to those who may have a shorter attention span.

The key thing is to make it easy to enjoy attending -- this should help draw them in.

Personally, I think it would be fine to use Boston Ballet II dancers (it's all in the marketing....).

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I've been going to Boston Ballet for many years, since the days of E. Virginia Williams. Here is a rather lengthy set of assorted thoughts on the above exchange.

1. Interesting point on use of ballet vocabulary in dance. That may be one reason why "In the Middle" works (for me) and "Sharp Side" doesn't. The latter may be less balletic. I'll have to think about that when I see it again.

2. 140,000 people reportedly saw the Boston Lyric Opera on the common over two nights. How many of these people could really see the stage and hear the music? The Globe had an interesting article about the amount of prep that went into generating that audience, arranging the venue, etc. Not something that could be done routinely - this performance was to celebrate BLO's 25th anniversary.

3. Boston Ballet has given free performances in the past. At least once at Quincy Market (where Elaine Bauer broke her back doing a modern piece) and for several years in the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade (where the Pops concerts are held). I'm not sure why they stopped, the difficulty of the performing conditions may have been a factor.

4. Boston Ballet does a lot of outreach to try to develop its audience and attract younger people. BBII dancers show up at malls and schools, in costume, to promote some of the programs and to help educate audiences. Students can get rush tickets for $12 starting something like 30 minutes before the performance, and tickets are often very good, not necessarily the worst seats. Depends on what is available. Tickets are available at reduced rates at Bostix ticket kiosks the day of performance (I think). Tickets are donated to various charity events, given as promotions, etc.

I'm not saying they are doing everything right or everything they could be doing, but that they are not catering to the older wealthier audience, they are trying to attract and educate more people to come and enjoy the ballet.

An aside: A couple of years ago the audience at Dracula was interesting. The audience was full of young people, some goths in "costume", it was fun to see them. Did these return for other ballet performances? Not many that I've noticed.

Another aside: It occurs to me that by some people's standards, while I'm not a Beacon Hill matron, I'd be considered one of the older wealthier folks. And I do know some Beacon Hill matrons who attend ballet. And many of us enjoy the modern, neoclassical, ballets. I'd rather see "Sharp side" 6 more times than have to sit through "The Pirate" (Le Corsair) or Cleopatra one more time. One of the older wealthier women gave a large gift to endow new choreography. So lets try to develop new audiences without stereotyping the older fans.

5. Nissinen and Wilder are trying to liven things up, and attract more young people. Early days yet, but they are replacing stuffy meetings with receptions and parties, trying to get people to mingle, etc. In the the past there was an effort to develop a young professionals group, with special receptions before or after the performance, maybe they can revive that. And they try to promote group sales, with discounted tickets and backstage tours. One problem in Boston is the intense competition for potential attendees' attention. There are so many things going on, sports, arts, educational, historical, etc.

6. I tend to say I don't like story ballets, but what I mean is that I don't like performances where there is a lot of standing around setting a scene and not so much dancing. Dracula and Cleopatra and Hunchback had some nice dance moments, but were more drama than ballet. Onegin tells a story but is all out dancing, I can hardly wait to see it again!

7. Boston badly needs a better performance venue, for ballet and for opera. Odds of such a venue being built? Maybe when the Sox win the pennant.

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Haha,I was just laughing at the prospect of the sox winning the pennanat....This is to adddress bbfan.I am pleases to hear that as a more mature audience member,you welcome the new stuff Boston Ballet is trying to add and I didn't know to what extent they had attempted to lure people into the theatre... I had another brainstorm,and if anyone from boston Ballet is reading this,maybe you'll pass it on...Mikko and Valerie are young.There are all sorts on entertainment spots on the television,so why doesn't the company spend a little money to make a really cool commercial?I think the people who go to see Riverdance and all of those things at the wang,go because they constantly see the adds for them.There is so much that one can do with technology that it doesn't just have to be ballet.Of course the focus should be on the company ,in rehearsal or something,but displaying the cultural diversity of the company with perhaps some exciting music.Then Mikko and Valerie could appear, looking fabulous and telling Boston to,"Come to the Ballet.It is not what you think it is..."(wow,do you think I have a career in advertising?haha)Seriously though,this company is too much and has the potential to be so much more and I think they are ready to be seen.

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I said older :) not mature ;)

Anyway, can't correlate age and taste. One of my mid-20's relatives saw the program, thought the Morris piece was ok, hated the Elo, didn't like the Forsythe.

bijoux, since you are in the area you've probably noticed the press that Nissinen is getting as one of the new hotties in town. Your idea of a nifty TV ad is interesting, I've seen TV ads for Nutcracker but otherwise the ads are print and radio. Maybe a budget consideration. I think we'll just have to wait and see what Nissinen and Wilder come up with this year. Wilder has actually been here, in residence, less than a month.

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