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What's wrong with ballet WAS 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?



(Watermill, I've copied this from the Boston Ballet forum and left your post in for context, unedited - Mel Johnson)

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* Outdated acting style (acting has changed in the past 100 years in other theater arts, except for ballet)

* Outdated narrative style.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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I've left the lead post and all of citibob's response to it unaltered. As the latter contains a sort of "manifesto" of What's Wrong with Ballet in General, I thought this would be a good forum to have a discussion on the points extended by the list.

As a start, I would say that in place of "ballet" we substitute "symphonic music", "playwrighting", or "literature". While I will stipulate that these are different media, I think the aesthetic point is similar enough to bear examination.

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I think a lot of people would agree with Mr. Mateo's manifesto but there are a lot of people who do like classical ballet, and would disagree. I agree with some points and disagree with others:

Outdated acting style (acting has changed in the past 100 years in other theater arts, except for ballet)

This is not factually correct. Acting in ballet is very different from what it was 50 years ago, much less 100 years ago, and there is photographic as well as film (and diary, journalistic, etc.) evidence for this.

Outdated narrative style.

That's so general I don't know how to address it. There are choreographers who can handle narrative and those who cannot. I've seen "outdated" works that work and radical attempts at reworking narrative that are incomprehensible.

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

????? THE trend of the past 20 years is for audiences to prefer full-lengths to programs of short works. Agree with this taste or not, the taste is there, and company repertories reflect it.

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)

There's some truth in this, but it's too general a statement. Dancers need a living artist to set a work on them -- as opposed to a dimbrain, a machine, a hack, or a saintly, well-meaning person who can't bring it to life. But there are stagers/directors who can make a ballet created 50, 100, 150 years ago to life for both audiences and dancers. I've seen this personally, and studied one company noted for doing this intimately and for a long period of time, and there are other examples. The revivals going on now, in several places, of Balanchine's work is one of them.

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

I agree that lack of choreographic consistency is an artistic sin :cool: I don't think it's just in Nutcrackers, though -- and it can be in other ballets, more likely in full-length ones than not.

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

This is very true for some, probably many people, but assuming it's true for everyone is a stretch. Many people find operatic singing unnatural and prefer musical comedy. Fine. Go. Both opera and ballet are unnatural, artificial in the original meaning of the term. It's their way of bringing objectivity to art. There are people who only respond to realilsm, to immediacy, to something they can relate to. There are others who have different tastes and expectations.

I'd also say that I think there are many subject matters that modern dance is much better able to handle than is ballet, and think ballet cheats itself and its audience when it tries to figure out ways to do deal with such material.

As for which modern audiences prefer, if they like the immediacy of modern dance more than ballet, why does "Swan Lake" consistently sell out, while modern dancers struggle to find an audience?

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

Agree absolutely. The great choreographers had companies that spoke their language -- modern dance or ballet. Balanchine expected, and got, a particular way of moving. Modern dance, too -- imagine the Graham company doing a Humphrey work. It wouldn't have happened.

There are two ways to deal with this. One is to have a personal movement style, as the great Moderns did; movement made out of their bodies, a technique forged from that movement style that was integral to the work. Or, in a ballet company with a resident choreographer, to make that choreographer's particular way of moving color the repertory. (When Ashton was choreographer in residence at the Royal, they danced everything in his accent. )

How to handle a multiple-choreographer repertory has been controversial since the 1950s when ballet companies began expanding their repertories. School of Thought A is that each work must be done in the style of the choreographer. School of Thought B is that if the company has a distinctive style of its own, then it's ok to dance everything in that style. As in most things, an individual's opinion is usually a function of his/her taste. An American may think that the way his/her home company dances "Swan Lake" is an improvement over the way the last visiting Russian company did it, for instance, while the way that Russian company danced "Agon" is a crime. The view would be reversed in that Russian company's hometown.

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I cannot say what the statistics are, and find it hard to believe from my own experience. But I HAVE heard people say they don't "get" ballet and they like modern dance better. Of course, if you ask a traditional ballet audience, you'll get another story. There seems to be general malaise about problems getting a younger generation interested in ballet. Meanwhile, modern dance shows, generally by nationally-known companies on tour, seem to sell quite well (the Joyce Theater is ALWAYS packed in my experience).

I must very much disagree on the idea that some thing are better suited for modern dance, and some for ballet. That is because with Mateo, I have participated in dances that deal with "modern dance" subject matter. Since it is unlikely that many others on this board have seen those dances, it's hard to have a meaningful discussion about them :cool:; such is a problem with dance. Anyway, I will discuss two examples, trying to give a sense of the danes. Both examples use standard ballet vocabulary, especially in the legs and feet. You can at least listen to the music and read the Boston Herald and Boston Globe reviews, to get some idea of the dances.

1. "Isle of the Dead", to Rachmaninov's score of the same name, based on a painting of the same name. Mateo knows the painting and the score.

The dance uses some "signature moves" in the arms. It also involves a little bit of rolling around on the floor (although no contractions). Other than that, it's standard ballet vocabulary. But if you saw a picture of the dance and didn't notice the pointe shoes, you might think "Modern Dance".

The ballet is all about dead people, so I will compare it to other "undead" scenes from the classical ballets: Giselle and La Bayadere. The classical "undead" scenes seem to romanticize death into a very beautiful scene. What could be more beautiful than the shades descending on the ramp in La Bayadere (one of my favorite scenes)? "Isle of the Dead" gives a more "raw" view of death, more of a stark kind of beauty.

Isle of the Dead was first performed in the early 1990's, and was considered one of Mateo's masterpieces at the time. It was revived for "Hallowed Dances", presented in the Fall of 2001. By dumb un-luck, this was the season that immediately followed 9/11. We got the only bad reviews I've ever seen with this company (not enough rehearsal time devoted to the things we were performing; maybe 9/11 just hurt everyone's vision last fall). But it was also clear that the audience was ABSOLUTELY MESMERIZED by the dance. It was 100% effective. Coming while we were all still in shock over 9/11, it struck a common chord.

2. "Dark Profiles", to Beethoven's "Great Fugue" for string quartet. This is about the last piece of music Beethoven wrote before he died, and was originally written as the final movement to his last quartet. It is 150 years ahead of its time: stark, very difficult listening. So difficult that the publisher asked Beethoven to write a more "friendly" conclusion to his quartet. He did, and the Great Fugue was published separately, on its own. Many modern performances use it as the final movement of the quartet, as Beethoven intended.

Dark Profiles deals with the inner angst of a woman involved in a tumoltulous relationship with a man. She is nothing special; we see a similar sort of tension between three other couples. But the relationship between her and her man is the one the audience gets to see in depth.

Costumes are stark. The men wear just biker shorts and flesh-colored shoes, as exposure of the body reveals exposure of the turmoil. Movement for the supporting couples is all stark and fluid, steps continuing one after another. Same for the leads, although they go through a wide range of movement qualities as well, as the depths of their relationship is explored. The lead woman ends up as she started: alone and lonely on stage, all others forced out of her domain.

"Dark Profiles" premiered in the "Resurgance" program, Spring 2001, and was made to feature Meg Flaherty-Griffith as the lead.

Movement is incredibly athletic. Watching the video tapes in slow motion, I would notice that the athleticism normally associated with figure skaters was showing up in Meg's movement. It was a true tour de force, both in strength, power and duration.

"Dark Profiles" was revived for "From Worlds Within" in the Spring of 2002. Meg took the lead again; I cannot imagine anyone else doing that part at this point. Since the press had such a recent memory of the dance from just the year previous, it was heavily promoted as being part of the new program. Pictures of Meg were everywhere; a picture from the previous year was used as the signature photo for the show. The press wanted to know more about "Dark Profiles" and about Meg. Everyone was excited about it because we knew it was such an effective, yet stark, dance.

Views on the music varied among dancers. Just like the original reviewers in the 19th century, we all thought it sounded like incomprehensible noise when we first heard it. Many dancers hated the music as much by the end as at the beginning. Having worked so closely with it, I have come to appreciate it. It now sounds beautiful and lyrical to me, yet still stark and strong. The Great Fugue is truly a masterpiece, for those who go to the effort to listen to it enough.

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i don't know if there's been a survey taken lately but i think it's safe to say the in the balance ballet still has 'numbers' on its side re: audience attendance over all.

maybe dance/usa has some stats.

nyc's joyce theater is not a good example of attendance figures. firstly it's a small theater, secondly it does show some ballet companies and some of these sell better than some of the modern-dance-based companies in the rotation. still, my observations are casual and non-scientific; i have no hard figures. for example, one big regular sell-out is the trockadero.

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A few remarks.

It's probably pointless to talk about audience preferences and attendance without actual statistics. From my observation the Joyce isn't always full; often it's "papered" and modern events without a "buzz" or "name" there do about the same as ballet events in the same situation. The attendance seems more driven by familiarity than dance style. The Joyce is the only small, curated theater for dance in NYC, and curation and a subscription base make a huge difference in attendance. It's my feeling that the general audience outside of dance professionals or aficionados go to attend a theater as much as a dance; they trust City Center or the Joyce to have done at least some of the picking for them and then choose from among the offerings.

The idea of a living choreographer making the best works on his or her dancers certainly resonates with me ;) but it's only a single model for a ballet company. America has so far had its greatest successes with choreographer driven companies - but then there's Paris Opera Ballet, which even in its times of greatest prominence in this century didn't really have a choreographer. A great school or a great ballet master could also be the main support of a company. How wonderful and lucky for any company to manage all three!

Subject matter and music: When we did a piece called Word Become Flesh this year to medieval french polyphony someone came up to me very satisfied and said, "You've grown." I thanked her and said the work was created in 1996 ;) My point is that the concept of the inevitable progression towards "adult" or "real" subject matter and vocabulary is just that, a concept. Rather than looking at repertory development as a linear march from classical ballet and divertissements to more weighty, modern-influenced work; I'd say that's just one choice. Balanchine made Agon, Square Dance, Stars and Stripes and Gounod Symphony in the same year. It's not a linear route, but rather a "progress" through the kingdom - a wise ruler visits every town in the land, and then visits them again!

For me, the heathiest route has been a circular one. As an audience member or as a dancer (and especially as a writer), I might have an ideology. As a choreographer, I don't. I do whatever the work at hand needs. That doesn't mean there are no rules. But the work at hand tells me when they need to be ignored, not the other way around. If the dance itself suggests it needs floor work or a contraction, we do them - but chances are if I've put women in pointe shoes and conceived of the work as having delicate costumes, the dance isn't going to tell me it wants lots of contractions and floor work! One develops a sense of what makes the dance at hand the best dance possible. It's a similar sense that a chef develops when seasoning food. You develop a taste, you sense when it needs salt, vinegar, or cream. You taste a lot of dishes as you train and experience tells you what to do.

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Hey, I'm not implying any rules here. I really don't know what goes on in Mateo's mind when he's making dances; probably something like what's going in your mind. I'm taking a more empirical approach, describing what he has done without guessing why he did it.

I don't think Mateo is making a progression towards "modern" pieces either. I just took the liberty to describe two of his starker works in this thread.

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I hope people didn't think I was commenting on Mr. Mateo's work - I haven't seen it (although coincidentally he was one of the people I studied ballet with 20 years ago (!!!) when I graduated from college in Boston.) I think the basic empirical observations Citibob made are interesting and merit discussion; the issues have been raised here before; as Alexandra has said it's one of the reasons this site exists. They can and should be looked at from many viewpoints, but I don't think we're ascribing your observations and comments to Jose Mateo.

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In an era when the most popular movies are 2+ hours long, I fail to see how ballets of similar length are somehow too long...especially when they have an intermission. Also, realism on the stage often doesn't work well--for example, Graham works are no more realistic than ballet, but the point gets across just as well. Even musical theatre isn't very realistic. If theatre were just real life put on a stage, I don't think I would spend $60/ticket to go see it. Come to think of it, movies aren't all that realistic. They may portray real events with naturalistic dialogue, but too much naturalism soon becomes tedious.

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I hear ya, Hans...Was it Truffault who uttered the famous insight: "Film is truth 24 times a second" ?

And every one knows that musical theatre is a joyous roller coaster ride with its ups & downs, rising & falling action, ballads and showstoppers. Who cares how long it is when you're having such a good time!?

I feel the same with great Opera and Ballet: Excellence kills all sense of time


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