Above photo: the closest my daughter and I will get to the Met or Koch Theaters for awhile Not unexpected but still shocking are the 2020 cancelations of fall Lincoln Center performances from New York City Ballet, New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and American Ballet Theatre due to COVID-19. The Met Opera plans a New Year’s Eve gala; NYCB will cancel its Fall Season and five-week Nutcracker run and hopes to have a Winter Season starting January 21; the New York Philharmonic plans on starting back January 6. As with everything in the COVID era, all plans are subject to change.
A silver lining from the COVID tragedy that has resulted in excruciating performance cancellations is the great new ballet works available for streaming (with minimal sports alternatives such as cornhole throwing on ESPN). Numerous ballet companies have stepped up during the COVID quarantine with great recent works, not just rehashed pieces from the 1980s. I have always wished that dance would be more like sports with plentiful options on television. Exciting dance programming available for TV was rare, with such works limited to in-cinema streaming.
A few weeks ago, I had a great night on the couch, binge-watching dance consisting of 1) New York City Ballet’s final digital Spring Performance that included excerpts from recent works such as Justine Peck’s The Times Are Racing, Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway, Gianna Reisen’s Composer’s Holiday, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Voices; 2) the wonderful The Violin from the Royal Ballet, choreographed by Cathy Marston from earlier in the year; and 3) Miami Ballet’s Balanchine Firebird. On other evenings, I took in New York City Ballet’s Midsummer Nights Dream, Alvin Ailey’s Revelations with informative pre-performance interviews and perspective, and San Francisco Ballet’s Snowblind by Cathy Marston. The Royal Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée, staring Marianela Núñez and Carlos Acosta was a delightful work and is currently on its YouTube channel. I look forward to Dance Theatre of Harlem’s digital season that runs until mid-July, starting with Arthur Mitchell’s Creole Giselle. Also, Angel Corella’s Pennsylvania Ballet with a mix of classic and new works such as Don Quixote, Giselle, Rubies, D.G.V.: Danse à Grand Vitesse, Glass Pieces.
It is a great experience being able to select from many great ballets, binge-watching from the comforts of my home. Hopefully, when this terrible crisis ends, dance troupes will continue with streaming opportunities. In addition to getting in front of arts fans, it allows people outside of major population centers to enjoy dance. Companies could also introduce a pay per view for newer works, generating revenue in these uncertain times.
ABT Needs Digital Content
American Ballet Theatre is noticeably absent from the streaming party. ABT has not streamed any performances during its canceled spring Met season, producing uninspiring interviews with limited views on its YouTube channel. I have heard that ABT does not have the rights to stream works from the Metropolitan Opera House, and the company cannot show dated performances from the Live From Lincoln Center and Dance in America series. On the other hand, NYCB can stream works; ten years ago, the company struck a deal with its unions to allow for film rights for its social media channels, according to Gia Kourlas of The New York Times.
I understand that companies that have a home theater, such as New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet, Mariinsky, Bolshoi, Metropolitan Opera have a built-in advantage in streaming works. As ABT does not have a home theater, I assume it is a matter of money they did not want to spend to obtain streaming rights. However, Dance Theatre of Harlem can stream works on YouTube this summer from performances at City Center and touring theaters. If DTH, with 2018 revenue of $7 million can have a successful digital season, why can’t ABT, with 2018 revenue of $50 million? Same logic for Pennsylvania Ballet, with 2018 revenue of $14 million. Why can’t ABT film performances at Segerstrom Center and/or Kennedy Center?
Looking forward, without digital content, ABT must produce original material in the fall to maintain interest of dance fans and donors. Early signs are encouraging: “We are committed to continuing to create through this crisis, and we are exploring a range of outdoor and digital opportunities. While we cannot gather large groups in traditional venues, we can find new ways to deliver on our mission of reaching the widest possible audience, increasing access to the art form of ballet and the inspiring artists of American Ballet Theatre,” says ABT Executive Director Kara Medoff Barnett. The company could put together works with a limited number of dancers in one of the many empty theaters in New York and stream on YouTube. Excerpts from Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker would be popular given the lack of a live performances. Pas de deux excerpts from popular ballets would be well received (Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell would be a joy to watch). Original works with a limited number of dancers could explore the company’s creative side.
ABT has been woefully behind the times, thinking of performance video as a “nice to have” but not entirely necessary. The COVID crisis has dramatically exposed the company during the lockdown. In the near term, the company must finally engage in creative thinking by streaming original works rather than dull interviews to survive. After the COVID crisis, ABT should produce and stream original content, possibly from other theaters if Lincoln Center is not cooperative. ABT could take the lead of the Australian Ballet, which filmed Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote in a converted airport hangar in Essendon, Australia in 1972, using a soundtrack which had been pre-recorded a month earlier. Below is an interesting video on the filming of the classic.
Whatever the methods, ABT must stream content to remain relevant in the dance world given the uncertainty that lies ahead on live performances.
For more thoughts, check out my previous article on dance and the performing arts in the COVID era.