Edgy, sexualized ballet advertisement campaigns have cropped up in many cities on the East Coast. From New York City Ballet’s subway ads, featuring dancers in scant rehearsal clothing, to the Orlando Ballet’s blaring campaign slogan, “SEXY IS BACK.” Katherine Brown, executive director of the New York City Ballet, acknowledged at a Crain’s New York arts and culture event in November that times are indeed changing for ballet companies.
“There has been a sea of change in the way people consume culture today,” Brown said. “It’s getting harder and harder every day because of the competition out there.”
According to Crain’s New York, NYCB reported more than a 10 percent increase in subscription renewals from the past five years, which some say is likely due to its attempts to reach younger patrons through the new ad campaign, which launched last August.
Donofry says that New York City Ballet, a company known for its strict Balanchine orthodoxy, is right on par with Pennsylvania Ballet’s attempt to escape the sanitized, unapproachable stigma that has stunted the arts’ growth. “They took a little of the same path that we did,” she says. “They made the dancers—what all of us call—rock stars. They’ve peeled back the tutu and the toe shoes.”
Yet, changing ballet’s image is not without risks. After all, rock stars have a stigma of their own.
“It’s definitely a vulgarization of the art form,” says Toni Bentley, an author and former member of New York City Ballet. “On the one hand, I can understand why [companies] are doing it, on the other hand, I think it’s appalling. I’m more old school.”
Bentley says that because ballet is rooted in aristocratic customs and etiquette, the ads will create cognitive dissonance for audiences accustomed to the traditionalism inherent to the art form. “Ballet has always been a very elite art. It’s an art that came from the aristocracy,” she says.
Bentley fears that the body objectification in ads such as Pennsylvania Ballet’s “Building on Balanchine,” may give audience members the wrong idea of what seeing a ballet is like. The ad promoting the production, “Building on Balanchine” features the muscular bust of a male dancer with the cursive tagline, “Ballet is more appealing when you strip away conventional thinking.”
“If [audiences] come to the ballet because they see some handsome guy with tattoos all over his chest and they go in to see Swan Lake, that’s going to be a disconnect,” she says. “They’re not going to see any chest or tattoos.”
She’s also concerned that the trappings of social media serve to bring the art form down to the level of the hoi polloi, detracting from the mystery once celebrated.
“We used to be elite creatures that nobody could see or touch or possibly be,” says Bentley, lamenting the fact that these days, dancers tweet to audience members about their snack-food choices during intermission. “It used to be ‘we are not like you, come and see [the ballet],’” she said. Now it’s, “‘we’re like you, so come and see us.’”
Social media can be a double-edged sword, and as Bentley points out, in the case of New York City Ballet, it has not only detracted from the mystery of ballet, but it’s actually caused some damage to the art form’s reputation. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, after NYCB company member Devin Alberda posted some unflattering tweets about the company, it began taking measures to regulate the social media use of its employees. It’s the first performing arts organization to do so.
“It’s sad,” Bentley says. “We used to be loved for being different; for our nunlike dedication” and “our incredible bodies, our fluid lines and our slimness … things that create beauty on the stage. That is not what is being heralded anymore.”
Meanwhile, the Star Group has its own plan to use social media to promote the personalities of Pennsylvania Ballet dancers. “One of the recommendations that we had made was that we could set up a dancers blog or journal that basically would allow dancers to update what they were trying to express in their different shows,” says Donofry, adding that this kind of promotion “humanizes” the dancers and “takes them down off their pedestals.
“We’re attempting to … remind people that … these are individuals up there dancing,” she says.
The ballet company opted not to take the group’s recommendation at the time because it already has a blog called “Talking Pointes.”
When it comes to any disconnect created by “Body Tells the Story” campaign, Donofry says the ads aren’t so far from the truth. “Some of the shows that I’ve been to are quite sensual, so it’s not completely untrue to what the art form presents.”
“We brought it more to the forefront and made it a little bit more self evident,” she adds. “People are talking about the ballet again and that’s all you can ask for.”
As for the dancers, many are pleased about the opportunity to change the public’s perception of them. “People are starting to understand dancers more as human beings [rather] than just as these porcelain dolls on stage,” says Barrette Vance, a soloist for Pennsylvania Ballet. Vance has been studying ballet since she was 2 years old, and says she’s encountered many people over the years who have been surprised by the fact that she’s not “uptight” or “prim and proper.”
“Whenever I go out and meet people outside of work, they’re always like, ‘… wow, you’re not the stereotypical ballerina,’” says Vance. “[Audiences] have this vision of a doll-like person, who never makes mistakes and never says bad words and listens to classical music.”