After being dismissed by many as a high-culture relic in danger of imminent extinction, suddenly ballet is hot in American popular culture, due in large part to the popularity of Darren Aronofsky’s dark psychological thriller Black Swan. For the past few months, a film about BALLET, of all things, has been one of the top-five highest grossing films in the nation. Natalie Portman won the Golden Globe Award for best actress; the buzz is that she’s a front-runner for a Best Actress Oscar. The airwaves are full of interviews about the hermetic world of ballet, and audiences are flocking to cinemas, sometimes returning to Black Swan for repeat viewings. In London, movie goers reportedly called the Royal Opera House to find out when Portman would be dancing during the Royal Ballet’s current run of Swan Lake.
In ballet circles, a tantalizing question has generated much excitement and speculation: Is Black Swan the new Turning Point, the 1977 film that helped to popularize ballet and ushered in the high summer of “the dance boom” when Americans seemed to fall in love with dance? Could Black Swan ignite a second great love affair between Americans and classical ballet in the 21st century?
As The Turning Point proved so decisively in the 1970s, films that reach a broad crossover audience can greatly raise the visibility of what is sometimes misperceived as an elitist art form. But based on my experience as marketing director at Houston Ballet over the past 10 years, I’m a bit more bearish in my prognostication about the long-term impact of Black Swan and its ability to develop a lasting audience for ballet that will be in concert halls watching dance long after 2011.
Here in Houston, we had a smashing example of how a high-profile movie with ballet subject matter can drive traffic to our live performances in August with the Houston premiere of Mao’s Last Dancer, which recounted the story of the celebrated Chinese dancer Li Cunxin’s dramatic defection from China to Houston Ballet. The film opened to great PR hoopla in Houston two weeks prior to the opening of our 2010-11 season. At our box office, we offered 50 percent off grand tier and balcony seats to anyone presenting a ticket stub from Mao’s Last Dancer to our season opener, “Body, Soul & Gershwin.” We saw a strong response to this promotion, sold many tickets to the performance, and ultimately ended up exceeding our ticket sales goal for this program by 62 percent.
The timing on the release of Black Swan is much more tricky in that its visibility has risen greatly at the end of December and in early January – just as the company goes on its layoff weeks after the two-show-a-day grind of The Nutcracker. We are not back in performance (and therefore don’t really have an advertising presence) until the end of February, so it’s difficult for us to capitalize on the interest and excitement surrounding the film now.
In a perfect world, we would be reviving Swan Lake during our February and March performances, and could run a campaign along the lines of, “You’ve seen the film version of Black Swan. Now see the original in all its glory in a spectacular live performance.” Unfortunately, we performed Swan Lake last in 2009, so it’s too early for us to bring it back into our rep.
However, even in Houston, ballet has suddenly acquired a sizzle. The Houston Chronicle did a feature this past month looking at “what’s out/what’s in.” At the top of the list of “in” items were ballerinas, with a photo of Natalie Portman from the film. In Houston prior to this point, ballet hasn’t crested to the top of the heap of mass popular culture, so I was a bit taken aback – and pleasantly surprised – to see ballet’s new pride of place. Instead of being elitist and old-school (the complaints often leveled against high art forms), we are suddenly trendy!
As the director of PR for one of America’s largest ballet companies (and as someone who loves the art of ballet), I’m a bit troubled by Black Swan’s dark focus on some of the worst stereotypes that have accrued around the ballet world (that may no longer be so accurate anyway): the obsessive drive to perfection among some dancers that can wreak havoc with their emotional lives; the warped body images and eating disorders; sexual harassment from company directors who indulge in the droit de seigneur. This is certainly not our reality at Houston Ballet, and I cringe to think that mainstream America is getting the impression that this is the reality for American ballet companies.
Although ballet companies can certainly offer promotions that can get fans of Black Swan through the door to experience live dance, I am ultimately pessimistic about how “sticky” these customers would be over the long term. In 2008, the League of American Orchestras conducted a highly influential study of nine major symphony orchestras that showed that more than 90 percent of first-time concertgoers never return for another performance. I would like to believe in “dance exceptionalism,” which posits that because our art form is so highly visual and features artists with beautiful bodies in sensual motion, we have a much greater chance at luring cinema goers who saw Black Swan (and presumably respond to highly visual aesthetic experiences) to a live dance performance.
But I look at our data on customers for our production of The Nutcracker, and I am not encouraged. Nutcracker buyers are an audience similar in many ways to that of Black Swan: “first-time tryers” of a dance concert who may not attend many other arts events regularly. Our studies show that 75 percent of Houston Ballet’s Nutcracker customers attend the Nutcracker, and never return (despite the fact that we aggressively extend discounted “bounce back” offers to productions with similar subject matter such as The Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake.)
According to the Oliver Wyman study of first-time attendees to symphony concerts, the issue of customer attrition “is the same customer churn phenomenon that afflicts businesses dependent on repeat-purchases and subscriptions, such as mobile phone operators, cable TV companies, airlines, and banks, and fast food restaurants.” Thus realistically, I don’t believe that dance would be immune to the same patterns of high rates of attrition that are common to many industries and sectors.
So, in a recessionary environment where arts budgets are very tight and our administrative staff hasn’t had a raise in two years, it would be hard for me to justify taking already scarce audience development dollars to invest in a program to attempt to educate and retain fleeting ticket buyers who have little likelihood of becoming long-term customers and supporters of Houston Ballet.
I don’t want to rain on the parade of Black Swan. I hope that Natalie Portman wins the Oscar for Best Actress, and that many more Americans are introduced to the fascinating world of ballet through Aronofsky’s fever dream of a film. But I believe that Black Swan’s impact on building a long-term audience for ballet that endures will be fleeting at best. Individual movies – and fads – come and go, but ballet as an art form has been around for centuries. American ballet companies from New York to San Francisco to Houston needn’t rely on faddish movie nominations, magazine covers, and top-ten lists to put out good work, build and engage audiences, and maintain a cultural legacy.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine and Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Turning Point
Houston Ballet’s Sara Webb and Connor Walsh in Swan Lake, choreography by Stanton Welch, after Petipa and Ivanov, photo Amitava Sarkar
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