Playing It Safe

Programming is an issue for ballet companies of all sizes; but the choice between running work that will guarantee an audience and an unfamiliar ballet is more than an economic decision – it brings into question the purpose of a company’s existence. To avoid becoming yet another irrelevant vehicle for diluted versions of the Petipa classics, companies must take the unmarked path: a little bravery can go a long way.

The basic purpose of a ballet company is to entertain; this is by no means an attempt to undermine the art of ballet – a majority of the audience are there for the escapism and have no academic interest in what is happening on stage. In a competitive field, such as that of theatre, ensuring quality is paramount – in ballet, this means engaging the services of trained professionals, and paying them commensurately.

Once money becomes involved, art loses its purity of purpose and takes on a commercial edge. Regardless of the funding status of companies – in Europe, many are lucky enough to be state subsidised, unlike in the U.S. or Japan, for instance, where private sponsorship and philanthropy is big business – box office numbers are the most important statistic; if seats aren’t being filled, the operation isn’t viable. Those audience members looking for some escapism courtesy of what is widely known as ballet – that magical land full of swans, sylphs and sugar plums – will come to see a production they’ve seen before or at least heard of: to get full theatres, companies are under pressure to mount recognisable, respected work. Respect and recognition from within and from without the ballet community mean very different things.

Repeatedly sold out performances of the classics are hard evidence of what draws in the crowds. However, ballet companies must present new work if they are to retain any artistic relevance. Commissioning a brand new ballet represents a huge financial risk – not only will sales for the period of programming suffer, but sets and costumes will remain unused. The Royal Ballet presented Twyla Tharp’s Mr. Worldly Wise in 1995 and such was its commercial failure that no new full-length narrative ballets were created again until Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland in 2011 – the latter, which drew rave reviews, was indeed a success at the box office, if not offering much novelty with its choreography. Generally new work comprises a third of a triple bill – almost as if the other two older works are being used as bait to lure the apprehensive audience.

Decision makers in companies have a difficult job. In order to mount work and employ dancers of high quality, they need to generate sufficient revenue. To develop new audiences, however, they need to get people talking: maybe Mr. Worldly Wise wasn’t the best ballet of ’95, but it certainly got a reaction.

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