Publicizing Ballet.

Posted by on 04.15.2011

As I was reading Suzanne Farrell’s book, “Holding On to The Air”, an interesting passage caught my attention.  Ms. Farrell talks about the publicity that a new Balanchine ballet would generate.  She says that Balanchine did not like to give the press backstage information, as he believed that it ruined the magic of the stage; the details of the dancer’s lives should not be laid out for the public to see.  He wanted the audience to see the dancers as elusive people they could only know through dance.

Publicity and press has changed a great deal since Balanchine’s time.  Now we have the internet, social media, and blogs where we can discuss ballet and dance like never before.  This allows us to pull back the curtain and reveal the details of company life to our audience.  The press come to rehearsals and film video for the 10 o’clock news, backstage footage is posted on youtube, and dancers tweet and blog about their art form.  These days, if an audience member wanted to know something about our work or our lives, all they have to do is ask.

Through these news venues, are we ruining the performance experience for audience members, or are we heightening it?  By knowing what goes on behind the scenes, are we giving the public more to appreciate or just showing them that dancers are real people too?  Should ballet dancers be seen as elusive people that seem untouchable to our audience?

What do you think?

 

23 Comments

  1. This makes me recall Margot Fonteyn’s line that if people truly understood what ballerinas did, no one would like it–only those who watch bullfights!

    But, seriously: I have a slightly unique perspective on this question. I’ve loved dance ever since I was a child, and though I did take ballet classes, I never was truly a dancer. (I knew dance too well, too early, to think that I had what it took physically.) But during my high school years, I was blessed to work backstage for Joffrey Ballet. Because of this, I had the privilege of watching choreographers in action, seeing dancers rehearse (and laughingly try to master some tricky lifts in the early stages), and watching warm-ups. I had at least some glimpse into the backstage soap opera, too. All I can say is, once the lights lowered in the theater and the curtain lifted, the magic happened, just as much for me as it did for anyone. It didn’t matter in the least if I got to see a dancer backstage go clop-clop-clop down the stairs in jeans and boots, munching on a bran muffin the afternoon before a performance. That all disappeared as I watched the show from the front of the house. And I also have to say this: one of the most gorgeous performances I ever saw of the pas de deux in Jerome Robbins’s “Interplay” happened in a rehearsal room in Joffrey’s NYC studios. From outside the big window, which faced the west, the setting sun provided a backdrop for the two dancers as they ran through the ballet in their practice clothes. It was marvelous.

    If the choreography is stunning, if the dancers perform with technique, style, and above all heart, then there is magic. And, to my mind at least, no amount of gossip or insider knowledge can ever destroy that.

    • Wow! That is a wonderful perspective! Thank you for sharing with us!

  2. I have been having just such conversations lately. One thought that comes to mind is how popular the behind the scene’s sections of Movie Dvd’s are.. 1/2 hr later in the conversation we come to the conclusion that yes the popularity of these ‘insights’, while lifting the veil on some of the magic, will probably help much more than hinder.

    • The analogy of behind the scenes footage from movies is an excellent one! Everyone wants to know what happens behind the scenes in Hollywood, so why not in the arts as well? Thank you for your comment Rachel.

  3. I did ballet as a child and on and off throughout my life. When I am in ballet class, the feeling is so natural and the music is chilling. There are certain people who have a love for the arts and it will come natural. I do believe ballet shouldn’t be overly advertised, but the more you know about a person and their lives, the more you will respect it.

    • Thank you for your comment, Liz. I agree. To a certain extent, bringing people behind the curtain of the ballet world allows them to understand the art form more, thus giving them a new appreciation.

  4. Earlier this season, a member of the media I invited to cover Miami City Ballet was stunned how tough and strong ballet dancers were when he saw them in Company class and in rehearsals.

    Before sitting in, this journalist thought a ballerina's life was recreational and delicate.

    Once he left, he viewed ballerinas as professional athletes.

  5. drumlinIRL-

    I agree. Some behind the scenes drama etc. would be inappropriate to share with the audience. It is just important to use good judgment.

    Don't you agree that it is interesting to hear the questions that people have? Ballet is so second nature to us that these questions sometimes surprise us! These are things that we don't always think about. This is why it is so wonderful to hear from our audience!

    Thanks for the comment!

  6. As an apprentice with a ballet company, I had to give this a considerable ammount of thought.

    Attention is great! Without balletomanes to attend ballet performances, none of us have jobs. Something I personally am against.

    However, I do agree that not everything that goes into ballet is truely beneficial to the appreciation of our art. At one time or another, all of my teachers have let my colleagues and I know that the audience doesn't care how difficult something is, and in facct they DON'T want to know we've ever had trouble with something. OUR job is to ensure they enjoy their evening, it's not about us.

    People do exhibit a certain morbid curiosity about the effort that goe into dance. No doubt. "Does it hurt to go on pointe?" "Wow, is lifting those girls very difficult?" People ask questions like that in real life, when they can log onto twitter and see every ache and pain dancers experience… Well, I don't think that's all good.

    But, bringing peoples attention back to us, particularly during a time difficult financially for everyone, is good. I think if we sacrifice a little bit of the mystery to keep ballet viable, that's ok.

    But just a bit.

    @ drumlinIRL

  7. Rlcsurf-

    It is the job of the critic to tell us their thoughts on a performance. However, ballet is very subjective. Everyone has different tastes and see ballet in different ways. This is the beauty of our art form. So, not everyone will agree with a critic's opinion.

    This is also why I think it is wonderful to have an educated audience. I think people are more appreciative when they understand what they are seeing. But on the other hand, then they know what they are seeing! So then there is more pressure for the company to perform at their best.

  8. Will knowledgeable ballet fans start to lose their awe and wonder in response to what is on stage and start seeing just the mistakes if they learn too much about ballet technique?

    I suppose that is possible in theory. If someone takes the time to learn that much about ballet they probably have a real love for it and they won't let anything deter them. Sure, they will probably be able to distinguish between something that looks good and something that doesn't, but I think we all understand that all performers can have a bad day.

    Anyway, isn't that the job of the critic? To tell the rest of us that what we thought was beautiful was really a mundane rehash of something done much better years ago by one of their favorites.

    I don't think most of us will ever have the training that you do to really pick apart a performance. And frankly, isn't that what ballet class is all about? Being hyper critical in the quest for perfection through a series of corrections? So you are simply doing what you have been trained to do.

    I attended my first Balanchine pieces performed by a local company last fall with my nieces. They were very critical of the performance. I knew there were things that I liked and things that I didn't like. I paid more attention to the partnering because that is the only class I take and I wanted to concentrate on improving my technique. So I was analyzing their performance a bit more than a regular fan, but knowing a little technique didn't detract from the experience.

    I have coached soccer for almost 30 years and I have been an attorney for over 25 years. I still enjoy watching soccer matches, whatever the level, but I generally don't watch legal movies and shows. Soccer is my passion and law is my profession. I do get critical when I see a legal show that has the wrong law books in the background, or someone doesn't make an objection during testimony or there is some long speech during the middle of a trial. But I understand it is supposed to be entertainment.

    With soccer I know how hard it is to do things. I still play. When I see a good match I appreciate what they are doing. Sure, I may have my complaints but that doesn't lessen my enjoyment because I love soccer. And I think the same would hold true for the passionate ballet fan. I might be able to say that Rebecca is off her leg tonight because I have taken the time to know you and watch you and know your abilities, but that won't make me like you any less. And if I see a tweet or read Tendus later and you say that you had an off night that will make me respect you even more.

    And I hope when I'm in Miami next March I'll have a chance to see for myself how well the dancers that I'm getting to know at MCB will do.

  9. rlcsurf-

    Reading your comment made me think about how I viewed ballet when I was a child. Everything looked perfect and amazing to me. I couldn't believe how every dancer on stage was simply limitless. Now that I am in the field and obviously know much more about ballet, I see mistakes that are made on stage. I see imperfections and I can distinguish between perfect technique and less than perfect technique. To me, it is almost ruined now. I no longer see ballet as a whole picture, I now see it from an analytical point of view. I miss the days when everyone seemed perfect to me.

    Do you feel that this is something that could happen to audience members who make an effort to learn more about the art form?

    Anonymous-

    I am so glad to hear that your boyfriend is getting into ballet! I find that this sort of thing often happens; significant others who had no experience with ballet all of the sudden find that it is very interesting and end up enjoying going to the ballet. It is always good to see this happen, but I can't help but think how many other people would find that they liked ballet as well, but it just didn't seem "cool" enough to become interested in. Why is it that dating dancers is the best way to introduce "normal people" to ballet? Why can't we get more people interested in other ways? Well I guess that is a ballet company's marketing department's never ending conundrum.

    Thanks to you both for the comments.

  10. I find it so strange that people think that knowing more about the ballet world will make it less appealing – that it must hold on to it's mystery.

    I'm sorry but I disagree with Balletomane3's comment. Knowing the difficulty that dancers face – the pain that is endured, the constant discipline that is necessary only makes me appreciate it all the more when it looks effortless. The movement of a swan on water is only truly appreciated when you understand all the work that is going on underwater. Ballet has the same attraction. I do not think it detracts from the overall effect.

    Social networking can have a positive effect on the way people relate to dancing. My boyfriend does not like ballet. It's just something he doesn't understand, or have any interest in. But he now reads Devin Alberda's twitter and blog, because Devin has demonstrated himself to be bright, amusing, down to earth and interested in the world around him. Ballet dancer's are seen in a certain way, and sometimes, for the wider (and younger) audience, knowing that someone likes Wu Tang Clan but can also nail an arabesque – well, what's not to like? In a small way, it's opened his eyes to the ballet world in a way that nothing else had – because he could finally relate to the person he was seeing on stage.

    Really it's a case as Cano-Nizer points out, to exercise caution in what you express, the way you would in any professional capacity.

  11. "But if you read in a blog about how hard or painful that ballet is, does that put you in a different frame of mind and change how you react to the performance?"

    To actually have an idea of how difficult the piece is and to see how beautifully and effortlessly it is performed makes me even more in awe of the dancers.

    I saw Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House in London a few years ago by La Scala Ballet. I had never taken a class and I was blown away by the performances. Once I had an inkling of how difficult it was to do what I had witnessed I was even more impressed.

    When I was young I used to watch professional athletes and think I guess getting hit by a ball or tackled must not hurt as much when you get older. But I learned as I got older that it hurt even more but they trained not to show the pain.

    I know that ballet takes great pains to make it all seem so natural and effortless. We never see anyone sweating or breathing hard. But that could be the very reason why people think that Ms. Portman could perform Swan Lake after a few months of training.

    Smiling through the pain; leaping higher and higher when your muscles are screaming and begging you to stop. Doing things that look physically impossible all the while maintaining a mask of serenity and impeccable beauty. If that isn't the very definition of glamorous then I don't know what is.

  12. Christopher-

    You make an interesting point about the fact that ballet used to only be accessible to some people; an elite group. Now, we are able to broaden our audiences and reach more people. You also bring up a wonderful point about social networking bringing professional dancers from different companies together. Take us for example! I have met so many wonderful, interesting, and sweet dancers through Twitter, who I would most likely never have come in contact with otherwise.

    Thanks so much for bringing a professional dancer's point of view to the discussion!

    rlcsurf-

    I am so glad that following dancers on Twitter heightens your ballet-going experience. Seeing dancers on stage who you know (either in person or thru the twitter-verse) really changes your experience. I can attest to that!

    You mention that reading about the sweat and tears that dancers put into their art form make you appreciate it more. Balletomane3 mentioned in their above comment that they does not like to hear about the difficulties that we as dancers sometimes face behind the scenes. So does talking about the pain and hardships of ballet make it seem less glamourous, or make it seem more real? Ballet is supposed to seem easy; the dancers should look effortless onstage. But if you read in a blog about how hard or painful that ballet is, does that put you in a different frame of mind and change how you react to the performance?

    So many questions to be answered!
    Looking forward to your thoughts!

  13. "Are we ruining the performance experience for audience members, or are we heightening it?"

    It is definitely heightening the experience for me. I have had the pleasure of attending two performances now by dancers that I follow on Twitter. There was almost a feeling of "I know her" and "I know him" that made me more personally invested in their performance. I hope to see more of the dancers I follow!

    "By knowing what goes on behind the scenes, are we giving the public more to appreciate or just showing them that dancers are real people too?"

    In some sense, dancers aren't "real people too." They have special and unique talents that I don't have and never will. I definitely have a greater appreciation for what they do. I've learned that it is not just the talent that gets dancers where they are, but incredibly hard work, drive and dedication. Taking a pas class has given me a little taste of what it takes. But reading about all the sweat and tears and pain that goes into making something beautiful for us makes me realize what they do isn't as easy as you all make it look.

    "Should ballet dancers be seen as elusive people that seem untouchable to our audience?"

    That is the most difficult question. Certainly there is a mystique we want in our idols. That is what a lot of the entertainment industry is built on. To some extent all stars must seem untouchable. How else can we justify paying hundreds of dollars for a ticket to a performance?

    But I am thrilled every time I get a reply from a dancer on Twitter or de Ballet. A member of the corps, soloist, principal dancer are all equally thrilling to me. I might even be rooting more for the young dancers who are starting their careers or aspiring to start their careers.

    When someone seems like a nice person that makes me want to go out of my way to see them perform. The last baseball game my son went to was when his idol refused to sign an autograph for him. We went to two games, were the first ones in the stadium, saw him when no one else was around and he wouldn't sign a baseball card or ball. My son was in elementary school and had created a little stat poster to keep track of the player's hits, etc. This was a few years before the player became a big star, was involved in one of the famous home run races and then was found out to be a cheat. But the way he treated a little boy who idolized him showed what kind of person he really was. So I guess these days it can work both ways.

    In the past maybe we wanted our stars to be untouchable and today we want them to be accessible.

    I appreciate all that you do, Rebecca, to give us more insight into your beautiful world.

  14. Hey Rebecca, Good Topic!

    I feel the social media, and other vehicles that give people a "behind the scenes" look are great, and ad to the audiences experience. Ballet was once an artform that people put on a level that was far out of reach. And only SOME people could appreciate it. It also made dancers seem like these insanely abnormal creatures that no one could relate to. BUT today, dancers are seen as human beings who happen to excel in an extremely beautiful but difficult art form. Social media also brings together dancers from companies all over the world that may have never interacted before.

  15. Your comment about a blog forcing dancers to write in on a regular basis is very interesting. On my blog I try not to post unless I have something worthwhile to share. Posting just for the sake of posting is not the way I want my blog to be. 

    On the other hand, the posts where the dancers were talking about how difficult and or painful a ballet is, is in fact, reality. But I can understand that that information can ruin it for the audience. This is why we need to really put out information that will be useful and interesting to the general public. 

    Thanks for your comment!

  16. Through these news venues, are we ruining the performance experience for audience members, or are we heightening it? —
    Heightening. I began taking adult classes in 2007 and am still with ballet partially because I can feel some connection to other ballet classes members and also the stars and starlets of ballet. Websites such as thewinger, oberon's grove, theballetbag have helped me feel connected in a way that a monthly Pointe magazine never could. I think that it is so gracious and kind of you professional ballerinas to write postings for your fans and even reply to their comments.

    By knowing what goes on behind the scenes, are we giving the public more to appreciate or just showing them that dancers are real people too? —
    The only time that I have been turned off was when one ballet company made 3 of it's dancers blog every week and each blog was an obsession about 'pushing through the pain, soreness and exhaustion.' But then they would turn it around to, 'but it is all worth it in the end on performance night so come see the performance'. It was like a very uncreative and unimaginative formula that I had to stop reading.

    Should ballet dancers be seen as elusive people that seem untouchable to our audience? —
    Well, I think that we should all hold a little something back just for the sake of mystery and awe. But people stay connected to things where they can feel a connection to the true talent.

  17. Agreed. I think a lot of companies in all lines of work will be facing this decision in the near future.

  18. I did not read about NY's guidelines but agree with them in principle. You are all employees of the company and must represent it. Therefore, when you are representing yourself as a professional dancer, the company has the right to dictate what is appropriate, at least in my opinion.

    On the other hand, recent court rulings have upheld social media (i.e. Facebook) as free speech so you posting something negative about MCB on a personal page (not that you would) is constitutionally protected. This is an interesting nuance as many of you have 1 account (especially on Twitter) where the line between professional and personal is quite blurry. Therefore, it'll be interesting to see whether such guidelines will be enforceable down the road.

  19. I am glad that you are beginning to feel closer to ballet and closer to the individuals on stage. I know for me when I used to go see San Francisco Ballet perform, it became a lot more exciting for me once I started to know the people onstage. It gives you an opportunity to be happy for people when they are dancing well and working with a wonderful company.

    I love the fact that you are now starting to notice corps individuals that you may not have noticed before. I think the corps is such an important element to a ballet company and I hope an element that does not go unnoticed!

    I can understand that learning about backstage feuds can ruin things for you as an audience member. We really don't have much of that at MCB (no really… we are like a big family), but I think it would just be unprofessional to air your dirty laundry to the public. I think that it is important for dancers to conduct themselves online as they would in the studios or onstage.

    On that note, you may have read stories in the news about New York City Ballet looking to add social media guidelines to their dancer's contracts. I don't know what will happen with that, nor will I comment on it, only to say that dancers who use social media are certainly making a splash. I think it is fascinating to give dancers voices and see what they say!

    Thanks for the comment.

  20. Rebecca, I think this is a great discussion starter.

    I think that the points you make here are applicable to any performer and athletes as well. As with most things, the "pulling back of the curtain" as you call it has its benefits and drawbacks.

    As far as the benefits, I can't even imagine how such access to backstage information can ruin a performance experience. For me, it actually enhances my experience of a performance. For example, although I only know you through Twitter and don't have any real contact with the other MCB dancers, my growing involvement in MCB allows me to see you as people rather than just professionals. Thus, when I see you on stage, I find myself appreciating your work more as I want all of you to succeed. For example, in "Romeo & Juliet" I enjoyed watching you perform as a bridesmaid and paid special attention to your dancing whereas last season I wouldn't have really noticed any individual performance among the Corps. I hope that as I get to meet more of your colleagues, my enjoyment of each performance will continue to grow. Also, news venuses such as this blog provide tremendous insight into the art of ballet and this too enhances my enjoyment of a performance as I know better understand all the intricacies involved in each performance.

    Now, on to the bad. While "Black Swan" may be an extreme example, shenanigans such as the ones portrayed in the movie are ones that I would not want to know about. For example, I can imagine that there is a lot of tension among dancers sometimes when it comes to earning certain roles as the industry is naturally competitive. I honestly have no interest in knowing that you and Dancer X have a backstage feud as such information is only detrimental to everyone involved. This would negatively impact my enjoyment of a performance as I wouldn't want to know that two dancers performing a piece together on stage really want nothing to do with each other. On a more sinister note, there is always the potential for the thin line between admiration and obsession to be crossed. With greater access to information on dancers, it is easy to forget that us fans really don't know you and, therefore, have no right to expect any kind of familiarity with any of you. Unfortunately, you always have wackos out there and this could lead to uncomfortable interactions (e.g. email, letters, messages) that could easily lead to stalking.

    Overall, though, I think the move away from Balanchine's philosophy is a good one for the industry as I think seeing you as persons benefits both parties. I simply think that each company and dancer must agree on appropriate levels of privacy and be prudent in what information is provided.

    Anyway, I think that's long enough and I'd really enjoy hearing other views.

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