I saw my dance teacher from Topeka, Kansas recently as her daughter was in New York for ABT’s teacher accreditation program. I danced in her company, Ballet Midwest, in the early 1980s and, although I did not pursue dance as a vocation, I developed an appreciation for the art form that continues to this day. After moving to the East Coast over 25 years ago, I admit to now having a New York centric view, lucky to live a 15-minute walk to Lincoln Center and able to take advantage of what the arts center has to offer on a moment’s notice. Reminiscing about my dancing days in Kansas made me ponder an issue central to the viability and survival of dance: What about ballet fans (or potential fans) that don’t live near a dance capital? How accessible is dance, say, from the perspective of someone living in Topeka?
This post explores the distribution of the product of dance. I examine 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 ABT and New York City Ballet lag significantly behind, giving ballet fans outside of New York limited opportunities to see their work.
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 product 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, The Nutcracker, Baryshnikov Live at Woolf Trap, The Turning Point) and resulting YouTube clips. 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.
The extent to which ballet companies release DVDs varies widely. In the table below, I provide DVD releases for ABT, Bolshoi, Mariinsky, Paris Opera Ballet, and Royal Ballet (information on Royal Ballet DVDs is from the company website while I relied on Amazon.com for the others). The Royal Ballet released an impressive total of 19 DVDs since 2005. While some of the DVDs are of popular works such as Nutcracker and Swan Lake, the company has released non-full length and less mass market works such as Ashton: Les Patineurs/Divertissements/Scènes de ballet and McGregor: Chroma/Infra/Limen. Also active are Paris Opera Ballet, Bolshoi, and Mariinsky. Paris Opera Ballet has provided 14 DVDs since 2003; Bolshoi 12 since 2006; and nine from Mariinsky since 2007. Fans of these companies worldwide have had much material from which to choose to keep up with current company dancers and repertory.
DVDs by Ballet Company
On the other hand, ABT has lagged substantially in this department. ABT released 10 DVDs since 1977 with nothing from 2005 to 2015, broken by the 2015 Ric Burns documentary American Ballet Theatre-A History to commemorate its 75th anniversary season. ABT was better at DVD production in the late 1990s and early 2000s: ABT Now (1998); Le Corsaire (1998); The Dream (2004); Born to be Wild (2004); and Swan Lake (2005). Then nothing, a dry spell of 10 years.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, ABT captured the great dancing of Angel Corella (Swan Lake, ABT Now, Le Corsaire); Paloma Herrera (Le Corsaire, ABT Now); Ethan Stiefel (Le Corsaire, The Dream, Born to be Wild); Herman Cornejo (Swan Lake, The Dream); José Manuel Carreño (ABT Now); Gillian Murphy (Swan Lake, Le Corsaire), but they could have done much more. Unfortunately, not much video exists documenting Julio Bocca and Alessandra Ferri’s illustrious careers at ABT.
Most of ABT’s DVDs seem to be associated with performances or documentaries originally broadcast on PBS. Maybe the dearth of production in DVDs from ABT is due to a lack of interest or funding from PBS. Nevertheless, I’m not sure why ABT is beholden to PBS as other companies are able to release DVD performances.
The lack of recent DVD production is a shame as ABT has upped its creative energy as Alexei Ratmansky has developed innovative, creative full-length works: The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Shostakovich Trilogy, along with shorter pieces: Seven Sonatas, Firebird, Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. Many of these works are acclaimed by critics. It is a shame that they are out of reach for those outside of New York.
While ABT has been terrible in producing DVDs, NYCB has been even worse. The only DVDs I could find on the internet are the five disk set Balanchine: New York City Ballet in Montreal, originally broadcast on French-Canadian TV in the 1950s, Choreography by Balanchine originally broadcast on PBS from 1977-1979, and the 1993 Nutcracker with Macaulay Culkin. According to The Balanchine Trust, the only Balanchine performance DVDs released since 1993 have been from Mariinsky (Jewels-2011), Paris Opera Ballet (Jewels-2006), and Pacific Northwest Ballet (A Midsummer Night’s Dream-2004).
NYCB does provide performance clips on its website and YouTube channel. However, short clips are not a substitute for viewing the entire performance, filled with subtlety and nuance. Watching 30 second ballet clips is like reading every 30th paragraph written by a great author.
Why has NYCB been resistant to DVDs? Maybe due to reluctance from the Balanchine Trust to make its works publicly available (although Mariinsky Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet have DVDs featuring Balanchine’s Jewels). However, there are many non-Balanchine works in the NYCB repertory from Peter Martins, with recent innovative works from Justin Peck and Ratmansky.
YouTube is the first source many ballet fans turn to see their favorite dancers. Many of the clips are from fans that ripped the DVD to their hard drives and edited to show their favorite segments of the performance. There are many clips of Baryshnikov in this category from DVDs that featured him. With the lack of recent ABT DVDs, most clips of the great Marcelo Gomes dancing with ABT are from pirate videos from audience members surreptitiously capturing the action during a performance. I am not sure of the source of his non-ABT work, possibly non-U.S. TV taped by fans and uploaded to YouTube. Former NYCB Principal Dancer Wendy Whelan is another example as very little video exists of her dancing at NYCB. There is a video of her around 1993 in Agon (I’m not sure of the source) and a clip ripped from the 1993 NYCB Nutcracker.
The Metropolitan Opera was the first opera company to offer live performance broadcasts in cinemas in 2006. The broadcasts have been a huge success, with 15 million tickets sold over eight seasons in 64 countries, according to The New York Times. Ballet companies have followed, with the Bolshoi and Royal Ballet leading the way.
Fans of Royal Ballet and Bolshoi can view performances relayed live to cinemas worldwide. The 2016/2017 Royal Ballet cinema season features six performances starting November 2. Included are crowd favorites The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Jewels. Also on the bill are Anastasia, Woolf Works, and The Dream/Symphonic Variations/Marguerite and Armand.
The Bolshoi Opera and Ballet has streamed performances to cinemas worldwide since 2009, currently with great coverage. On the 2016/2017 bill are The Golden Age, The Bright Stream, Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, A Contemporary Evening, and A Hero of Our TIme. Cinema coverage for the Bolshoi cinema season seems more expansive than The Royal Ballet. Denver, CO and Pittsburgh, PA have no Royal Ballet cinemas. The Bolshoi performances are shown in these cities and Topeka; very impressive coverage from the Bolshoi.
The Paris Opera Ballet has distributed live broadcasts of both its ballet and operas to about 100 cinemas in France since 2012, according to the Times article.
NYCB’s foray into live cinema has been tepid. In 2011, the company transmitted a Nutcracker performance to 500 movie theaters in the U.S.. NYCB Executive Director Katherine E. Brown hoped it would be the “first of many” such transmissions, according to The New York Times. Live cinema has not worked out for NYCB, with the only other transmission, another Nutcracker, in 2015.
ABT has not done any live cinema events.
Streaming was prominent in the 2016 Olympics as NBC streamed most events live. According to The Wall Street Journal, nearly 50 million viewers streamed 3.4 billion minutes across the web and on mobile and connected devices, with more than half of streamers under the age of 35.
Some ballet companies take advantage of streaming technology, bypassing cinemas altogether. Examples include Le Corsaire by the Vienna State Ballet and Bavarian State Ballet (however, I can’t find any video of these performances on the web). Also innovative is that The Royal Ballet has streamed live rehearsals posted on YouTube. For updates and information on performances, BalletAlert! has a page on live stream performances and DVDs.
Some of NYCB’s July 2016 Paris performances were streamed in Europe. Fortunately several ballet fans captured the event and posted on YouTube and shared drives. While the YouTube video was taken down due to a copyright claim from Bel Air Media, the video survives as mussel from BalletAlert! copied the files to his Google Drive folder.
This episode begs the question: why can ballet fans across Europe see the authorized NYCB stream, but the U.S. cannot?
Most companies have a YouTube channel which features performance clips (my favorite), interviews, and short documentaries. The Royal Ballet channel is the best, with numerous performance videos, interviews, and live rehearsal streams. An impressive collection, providing Royal Ballet fans with a broad perspective. NYCB’s channel gives interesting insight on various ballets from a dancer perspective in addition to the AOL series city.ballet. Paris Opera Ballet has a number of teaser clips from various ballets. ABT’s channel has no live performance video and concentrates on 75th anniversary interviews with dancers over the years.
ABT and NYCB Lag
The Royal Ballet and Bolshoi are very good at getting their product to fans worldwide through DVDs and live cinema. Mariinsky and Paris Opera Ballet are also effective with DVD releases. On the other hand, ABT and NYCB have an arrogant and elitist attitude of: “If you want to see our dancers and rep, fly to New York.”
The lack of global distribution from NYCB is surprising given their effective local outreach efforts. Since 2013, NYCB has sponsored an Art Series, which featured innovative artwork from artists Faile, JR, Dustin Yellin, and Marcel Dzama. The works were the centerpiece of the NYCB seasons, adorning the mezzanine plaza and accessible free to the public during specified viewing hours. The marketing also consisted of selected performances with new works with all seats priced at $30. New artists coupled with cheap seats are an effort to expand the art form to younger audiences. Living in New York, I see many advertisements on various mediums for NYCB performances. Overall, NYCB does a great job of marketing in New York. However, outside of New York City, those with an interest in Balanchine works must rely on outdated DVDs from the 1950s and YouTube uploads of TV performances from ballet fans (probably a copyright violation). The lack of global marketing focus is also surprising given the large financial resources that NYCB has at its disposal.
ABT needs broader distribution of its product to make their other initiatives successful. Project Plié is an effort started by ABT in 2013 to increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet to diversify America’s ballet companies. Plié seeks to provide support to young dancers and teachers from underrepresented areas. To make this work, young people must be exposed to dance on a regular basis to consider taking up ballet. If ballet is not accessible, it will simply not be on the radar screens of young people who otherwise might have an interest in dancing. As an example of the power of publicity, the Olympics does wonders for new participation in gymnastics and swimming in gyms throughout the U.S.
Maybe ABT will up its marketing game in both local marketing and global outreach with new Executive Director Kara Medoff Barnett. She has an impressive background as a Managing Director at Lincoln Center International with a Harvard MBA, an institution that prides itself for training leaders to “think outside the box.” She is now at an institution that, from a marketing perspective, has been living inside a small box for years.
My suggestion of a bold thinking outside the box idea for ABT: streaming a few performances on YouTube or another internet channel so fans worldwide could appreciate what the company has to offer, particularly Ratmansky works. This would be a major ballet event, a marketing coup for ABT, allowing the company to greatly expand its reach, particularly to young people. Some would argue that making events free would reduce ticket sales. Such ideas are contrary to the experience of professional sports in the U.S. In the early days of NFL football, some suggested that free TV would reduce attendance of games. To the contrary, the experience over the past 50 years clearly indicates that football is popular today because of free TV, not in spite of free TV.
The Bolshoi, Royal Ballet, Mariinsky, and Paris Opera Ballet are doing a good job at getting their product to ballet fans outside of their home city. Ballet fans have the opportunity to see productions in DVD format and sometimes live in cinema.
ABT and NYCB lag far behind their competitors with little DVD and cinema involvement. The bottom line is that fans (or potential fans) of ABT and NYCB that cannot travel to New York or the few cities they visit are locked out from seeing the companies’ work.