ABT DVD Dry Spell Continues

Above photo: World Premier of Alexei Ratmansky’s Harlequinade, my suggestion for an ABT DVD. Two years ago, I wrote an article on the distribution of the product of dance. I examined major ballet companies on their efforts to expand audiences through alternative channels, in particular DVDs, live cinema, and streaming. The Royal Ballet, Bolshoi, and Mariinsky are very good at getting their product out to fans worldwide while American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet lag significantly, giving ballet fans outside of New York limited opportunities to see their work. For example, the Royal Ballet issued 14 performance DVDs from 2010-2016; eight for the Bolshoi; six for Paris Opera Ballet; and four for the Mariinsky. The last ABT DVD was in 2005, Swan Lake with Gillian Murphy and Angel Corella. NYCB has released four performance DVDs in its history.

Sad to report that ABT did not release any performance DVDs since publication of my article, extending its dry spell to 13 years. ABT did provide some lip service to expanding its reach, recognizing the importance of connecting to audiences digitally. In an interview in the ABT program during the company’s 2016 fall season, new ABT Executive Director Kara Medoff Barnett discussed the importance of connecting with fans globally:

In addition to physically travelling with our dancers, crew, sets and costumes, we can tour virtually and connect digitally to fans and audiences all over the world. Striking imagery and compelling video is everything in the mobile, digital era, and dance is inherently visual. You don’t need language to understand the power and beauty of bodies moving through space. We are poised to build on this advantage.

Unfortunately, ABT has not followed up by providing digital products showing full-length productions. As I wrote in my 2016 article, in the 1970s, U.S. ballet fans relied on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) broadcasts that aired many great performances in the Dance in America series. Currently, there isn’t much dance shown on television; for some reason, PBS does not present much dance, while cable networks like Bravo and A&E focus on absurd mind-numbing reality shows. DVDs have filled the void and provided a great marketing vehicle for some dance companies. DVDs are a vital method for ballet companies to distribute their product to ballet fans worldwide. The DVDs generate interest in productions and dancers, complementing live performances as they serve as a marketing tool for the ballet company.

Moreover, DVDs are important for the legacy of dancers. Mikhail Baryshnikov’s ballet career is done, but his great dancing lives on through numerous DVDs (Don Quixote-see below for clips, The Nutcracker, Baryshnikov Live at Woolf Trap, The Turning Point) and resulting YouTube clips. Not having digital records does a disservice to dancers and their legacies. To state the obvious, dance is an ephemeral art form unlike painting or sculpture. If not recorded and readily available, a dancer’s work is lost forever, leaving only imperfect written accounts behind.

No DVD production, live cinema, or streaming means that only those close to the limited number of large cities where ABT performs (basically New York, Washington D.C., Orange County, and now Chicago) can see its dancers. Because ABT performances are not widely available, the art form is not on the radar screen of many who would otherwise be fans. It is a shame that great Alexei Ratmansky productions such as Sleeping Beauty and the new Harlequinade danced by leading lights Herman Cornejo, Gillian Murphy, Christine Shevchenko are not accessible to the masses. Why ABT is resistant to releasing DVDs is a mystery given the great promotional value. The company released 10 DVDs from 1977 to 2005 (a table in my 2016 post provides Amazon links). I don’t know how much such productions cost; given how technology in the form of high level video cameras has advanced over the years, I can’t imagine that delivering a high quality product would be that expensive.

Update: After I published this article, I ran across someone who works at a major U.S. ballet company. He said that performance DVDs are “extremely expensive” and threw out projected costs that I thought were obscene. He said that performing arts unions and union contracts contributed to the great costs, explaining that, under union contracts, everyone must get paid for even the smallest of jobs. I wonder if other ballet companies such as Royal Ballet and Bolshoi have such high costs for their DVDs and how they deal with such costs. I’ve never seen a performing arts collective bargaining agreement, so I can’t contribute much to the discussion. I would love to know what the great expenses are to produce a DVD.

As bad as ABT is on DVDs, NYCB has been worse. As of my 2016 article, the last NYCB DVD was Choreography by Balanchine originally presented on PBS from 1977-1979 and New York City Ballet in Montreal which aired on French-Canadian TV in the 1950s. The good news is that NYCB released two recent DVDs, Balanchine’s Nutcracker in 2016 and New York City Ballet in Paris in 2017. The latter features three French composers who inspired Balanchine: Charles Gounod, Maurice Ravel, and Georges Bizet. The result was three mainstays in the NYCB repertory: Walpurgisnacht Ballet (Gounod), Sonatine (Ravel), La Valse (Ravel), and Symphony in C (Bizet). Several of the Paris DVD commenters on Amazon lavished praise on the DVD, but wished that NYCB would produce more.

My suggestion from my previous article of bold thinking for ABT and NYCB: streaming a few live performances on YouTube or another internet channel so fans worldwide could appreciate what the company has to offer. This would be a major ballet event, a marketing coup for the companies, allowing them to greatly expand audiences, particularly to young people.

Without DVD or live cinema availability, fans must rely on social media platforms such as Instagram for dance coverage. I’ve spent much time on YouTube and recently on Instagram; both are a mixed bag. Many clips, particularly on Instagram, are devoid of artistic context, eye candy designed to generate immediate approval.

Theresa Ruth Howard in Dance Magazine makes an interesting case that social media has a detrimental impact on dance, putting the search for many followers and likes above artistic achievement:

These sorts of IG accounts are basically dance erotica, where the physical attributes coveted by dancers are fetishized, presented in such extremity that they border on grotesque, unrealistic and—more importantly—often unuseful. When dance lovers (whether they’re educators, students or directors) indulge in the reduction of our art to human caricature and tricks, turning the elite forms of line and grace into a Vaudevillian sideshow, the real danger is the effect on our sensibilities.

An interesting read. Check it out.