During the cold winter months, a billboard bearing the sultry image of a woman’s sinewy, tattooed upper back hovered over the South Street Bridge. The ink, etched in cursive black letters, read: “Falling in love with a Swan isn’t so far fetched when she looks like this.” Erotic as it was, the provocative advertisement wasn’t promoting a chic new tattoo parlor or a gentleman’s club, but the opening of Pennsylvania Ballet’s Swan Lake.
While the ad seems out of character for the aristocratic art form, this type of racy promotion has become commonplace for many ballet companies struggling to sustain their classical art form within the fast-paced ethos of the digital age. In terms of ballet’s image, advertising campaigns are veering away from the antiquated sylphlike creature in the white diaphanous skirt to something that resonates better with more mainstream sensibilities. In other words, tutus are out and tattoos are in.
Produced by Star Group Communications, Pennsylvania Ballet’s ad campaign, “The Body Tells the Story,” began running in print and on TV last September. The company’s artistic director Roy Kaiser says the main objective of the ad campaign is to help make the medium more appealing to people outside its traditional following. “For quite a while we … have been trying to market in new ways. We want to make the art form more accessible to a wider audience.”
Kaiser says that the biggest challenge ballet faces is exposure. “A big obstacle for us is the lack of people in this country today that have been exposed to the art form, and if they have, it’s been bad exposure,” he says. “Part of what this campaign is geared toward is breaking down some of the stereotypes that people have carried with them, and just getting them to come in and experience the company for the first time.”
Kaiser, now in his 31st year with the Pennsylvania Ballet, says the plan was to first “make people stop and look … Then hopefully when they realize it is in fact the ballet putting this ad out there … it might intrigue them … make them think ‘OK, maybe the ballet isn’t what I thought it was.’”
While there hasn’t been any documented improvement in Pennsylvania ballet’s subscription sales since the campaign began, ticket sales for Swan Lake —performed at the Academy of Music in March—surpassed expectation. “Single ticket revenue [for Swan Lake ] exceeded our goal by more than 50 percent,” writes the company’s spokesperson Marissa Montenegro in an email. “Actual single ticket revenue exceeded goal by $225K.” In particular, she notes, student ticket sales more than doubled what they were for last year’s March production of Carmina Burana .
“Newcomers told us they were attracted to Pennsylvania Ballet by it [the campaign]. They liked the imagery and commented that they found it both relevant and fresh, and it helped them to view Pennsylvania Ballet in a new light,” says Anne Bedic, Pennsylvania Ballet’s director of Strategic marketing and communications.
But the ads can’t take all the credit for the company’s success, though. Many connected to the industry say Darren Aronofsky’s film, Black Swan, was a major catalyst behind the production’s recent popularity boost in Philadelphia. Several of the dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet performed in the film as company members. As a result, the Pennsylvania Ballet—whose production Swan Lake opened just days after Natalie Portman claimed Best Actress at the Oscars for her role as a dancer struggling to cope with the demands of performing the main role in the classical ballet Swan Lake—achieved a tremendous amount of synergy with the film as far as media attention. According to one dancer, Pennsylvania Ballet’s production was “sold out every night.”
Kaiser says that while the film exaggerated many aspects of the ballet world, it was beneficial in getting people to the ballet. “[The film is] certainly not an accurate depiction of the art form or what it’s like to work within the art form. It’s a psychological thriller that happens to be based in the ballet world.” But, he adds, “it has brought the art form to the attention of a lot of people that may not have even thought about it.”
Tracy Donofry, executive director of Star Group, agrees that the campaign worked well “in tandem” with the film, saying that both have the same “sensual, mysterious dark feel.”
“I have never seen that house as full as it was,” says four-year Pennsylvania Ballet subscriber William Cradle, referring to Philly’s opening night of Swan Lake. “I’m there every time there’s a new ballet.”
Cradle, who sits on the board at Atlantic City Ballet and is the president of Atlantic Color Limited Inc., a communication and graphic-arts firm, says he was intrigued by Pennsylvania Ballet’s “very provocative” ad campaign. “They’re obviously trying to capture a younger demographic.”
That’s the plan.
“Once you expose a younger demographic to [ballet], it’s very easy for them to relate to it,” Kaiser says. He also notes that ballet companies are always “evolving,” and the job of the artistic director is to facilitate growth, not only in terms of artistic vision, but also in terms of public exposure—challenging conventional ideas about the art form—in order to attract new patrons.
As someone who has worn nearly every hat in the Pennsylvania Ballet, from principal dancer to ballet master to artistic director, Kaiser has seen the art form change dramatically over time and has taken an active approach in shaping and revamping what ballet is, and how audiences understand it. “[My] most basic ambition is to really try and expand the repertoire for the company,” he says.
This isn’t the first Kaiser has tried to mainstream the company’s image. Eight years ago, the Pennsylvania Ballet went to the Star Group looking for fresh promotional ideas. The advertising team went to work on a campaign similar to the current one in that it focused on the bare body parts of dancers. However, the older incarnation highlighted the performer’s athletic ability, rather than their sexual appeal. “There were tag lines with each ad, many comparing dancers to athletes,” says Donofry, adding that the campaign increased the Ballet’s subscription sales by 16 percent, and credits that success as the reason the company returned to the group a second time. “I think that was at the back of their heads, that [the previous campaign] was a success,” Donofry says. And when “the company’s subscriptions started to pale again a little bit … they came to us and asked us to revitalize that concept.”
During its research for the campaign, Star Group discovered that people who had never experienced a live performance “didn’t understand the full thrust” of what ballet was about.
“There’s a huge segment of the population out there that has never actually been to a ballet, but has very preconceived notions about what it is,” says Donofry. “They just saw people in tights dancing to classical music. We thought, ‘how do we pull that stigma away from it and really represent these people?’”
In short: Sex sells.
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