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Seeking relevance and new audiences, NYC ballet companies embrace diversity

Seeking relevance and new audiences, NYC ballet companies embrace diversity

When the New York City Ballet announced last fall that the company had commissioned Solange Knowles, the Grammy-winning singer and multimedia artist, to compose an original score for a new dance, the news sparked a flurry of excitement online. Knowles provided the music for “Play Time,” a dance by Gianna Reisen, the company’s youngest choreographer. For some visitors, Solange was the decisive hook.

“We’re huge fans of Solange already,” Sarah Ibraham said as she waited outside of David H. Koch Theater. She and her sister had flown from Toronto just for the occasion. They’d wanted to see the ballet at home, she explained, but tickets were expensive.

“When we saw that she was having a ballet show here, we looked at the prices, and saw that they were pretty affordable,” Ibrahim said. “So we bought tickets, and then planned our whole trip around seeing her.”

Faced with pressure to grow and change, New York City Ballet and other prominent companies are responding with diverse new programming. In an artform that’s been around since the 15th and 16th centuries, drawing in new audiences and remaining relevant in the 21st century, while also retaining core supporters, has been a major priority, according to executives, artists and observers. The New York City Ballet’s winter series, which runs through Feb. 26, features classic dances choreographed by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. But it also includes a program of contemporary works, including the first piece created for City Ballet by Keerati Jinakunwiphat, a member of the trailblazing Black-led company A.I.M by Kyle Abraham.

New York City Ballet said that 73% of single-ticket sales for “Play Time” went to first-time attendees.

Erin Baiano for New York City Ballet

In fall, attendees and observers on social media alike said Knowles’s involvement was the push they needed to finally see a ballet. According to a New York City Ballet spokesperson, first-time attendees accounted for 73% of single-ticket sales for performances that featured “Play Time.” (Tickets are on sale now for the work’s return engagement in May.)

Lauren Epps, a former ballet dancer who’s lived in New York City for just over three years, paid her first-ever visit to New York City Ballet to see Knowles make history as only the second Black woman ever to compose a score for the company.

“It’s been a place where we haven’t always been welcome,” Epps said. “Just to see one of our own – a familiar face, and somebody who I respect as an artist – actually make it to this level, and see her presented in this light – it’s such a good thing.”

Addressing what sparked the changes happening at New York City Ballet and other similarly prestigious companies, Julia Foulkes, a professor of history at The New School, says the murder of George Floyd in 2020 ushered in a reckoning, forcing elite arts companies to reflect and make significant changes. Foulkes says presenters should focus on featuring more people of color throughout their productions, and on telling contemporary stories to attract a more diverse following

“For these art forms to survive, they know they have to change their audience,” Foulkes said. “There are only so many elderly white people who can support the arts. It’s not just a matter of money either; it’s a matter of relevance. Ballet has struggled over the last couple of decades to figure out how it speaks to people.”

“It should really be part of the fabric of who we are”

New York City Ballet hasn’t been alone in embracing change. Janet Rolle, the CEO and executive director of American Ballet Theatre, emphasizes that working to diversify the ballet world’s ecosystem is not a special initiative, or a reaction to anything. “It should really be part of the fabric of who we are and what we do,” she said, “and not something that’s separate to who we are and what we do.”

This season, ABT debuted “Lifted,” a new dance by choreographer Christopher Rudd. Beyond its all-Black cast, Rolle notes that “Lifted” featured Black artists throughout the production, including the composer (Carlos Simon), lighting designer (Alan C. Edwards), costume designer (Carly Cushnie) and guest conductor (Roderick Cox).

American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Calvin Royal III appeared this season in Christopher Rudd’s “Lifted.”

Karolina Kuras

“When I think about the ballet ecosystem, and the places that we’ve been able to participate,” Rolle said, “it’s all throughout the process of making a ballet that I’m interested in making sure that we’re elevating new and diverse voices.”

Rolle was herself a professional dancer for a number of years. But her most recent job before American Ballet Theater was running Parkwood Entertainment, Beyoncé’s management company. When Rolle became ABT’s first Black CEO in 2022, she set out to change how performances were marketed, clarifying that going to the ballet is not just for an elite.

“It seemed that you had to dress up to come to the ballet, you had to know everything about the protocols, the pantomime, and so on and so forth, in order to understand and enjoy it,” she said. “We spend a lot of time thinking about how to demystify the experience, so that people understand that it is accessible and enjoyable, and that there’s lots of entry points for that enjoyment.”

Rudd had made waves in the dance world previously, pushing the boundaries of what a ballet performance could be. He says the most diverse audience he’s ever encountered was when he debuted his work “Touché” at ABT In 2021. The dance explores the love between two men. Rudd says the premiere felt like a celebration with the audience.

“If you’re trying to get audiences back, especially after COVID, and you’re trying to get a more diverse audience and a younger audience, you can’t do the same thing to get them there,” Rudd said. “They speak a different language, they have a different attention span, they have a different desire. And we can do more to tap into those things.”

ABT principal dancer Calvin Royal III, who was a part of both “Touché” and “Lifted,” hopes that exciting cross-collaborations with artists from outside the ballet world and fresh stories will become part of the DNA of future storytelling.

“I just hope that with the next generation of young dancers coming up and young creatives coming up, will see that nothing is impossible,” Royal said. “It’s like these breakout moments: we have a chance to really experience change in real time, and educate and inspire audiences.”

The New York City Ballet winter season runs through February 26 at Lincoln Center. The company will revive “Play Time,” with music by Solange Knowles, in May.

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