Engaging Generation Y in ballet – thoughts and ideas

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from RESEO, who are “the unique European network for education, participation and creative learning in opera and dance”. They consist of representatives of all the major opera and ballet houses in Europe, and host bi-annual conferences to discuss important ideas in engaging audiences with opera and dance. Their current conference (10-12 Oct) is titled GENERATION Y: Engaging young adults in opera and dance.

After a really stimulating Skype call with Clare from RESEO, I was asked to write a couple of pages about ideas for engaging Generation Y in ballet. It would mainly be thoughts on what I think works (and doesn’t) and would be printed out (including a French translation!) and given to the conference attendees during one of the ballet-themed sessions.

I was very honoured to be asked, and was happy to help. Unfortunately the request came right in the middle of a big academic paper deadline so the finished article is a bit rushed. Hopefully though it was of use to the conference-goers! I thought I’d reproduce the article here on my blog (along with a few added pics/videos) to see what my readers think. In particular, I’d love to hear whether you agree/disagree, or have any other thoughts on engaging 18-30 year olds to both watch and participate in ballet.

I’m a Computer Science PhD student who, three years ago, started taking ballet classes. Having mainly been interested in sports (rowing, cycling, triathlon) in the past, I got absolutely hooked and now take hours of class a week alongside regularly watching live ballet. I run a blog about my journey (http://www.davetriesballet.com) and have written reviews and pieces for national websites. Recently, I was selected to be a Royal Opera House Student Ambassador, and so spend time promoting opera and ballet around campus to my peers.

It might seem a little strange that I started ballet so late (I was 23 when I first started class), and I’m certainly not “the norm” – but there’s no reason I couldn’t be. Ballet offers a great all-round workout, helps increase flexibility, and promotes lean muscle. It’s important however, to dispel certain misconceptions and stigmas associated with it.

It sounds counterintuitive, but often the most effective way to connect with my generation is by not “trying too hard”. There’s been a couple of really great role models for guys (or girls) starting ballet in their 20s+ recently. The first is Hollywood star Ryan Gosling who revealed that he takes class at an LA studio. He doesn’t do it to get snapped by the paparazzi, and doesn’t take private classes – just takes class like the rest of us. Similarly, British Olympic swimmer Liam Tancock uses ballet seriously within his training. I think one of the best things about Tancock is that he’s so “matter of fact” about doing ballet. Being interviewed by the BBC (BBC Article) he points out the benefits of ballet and how it’s impacted his performance. It’s not a big fuss and that’s awesome – the easiest way to make ballet accessible is by making it seem “normal”.

Liam Tancock doing ballet as part of his Olympic training schedule (src: BBC)

Liam Tancock doing ballet as part of his Olympic training schedule (src: BBC)

The link between sport and ballet is a powerful, but tricky, one. Ballet is indeed a great way to increase fitness, but care is needed to avoid lumping it with Zumba and other purely fitness-based dance classes. When I talk to my friends about ballet class, I tend to emphasise the control needed, along with the fitness and strength (plus grace, artistry and many other factors). It’s also fun to tell them “Why lift weights when you can lift girls” – perhaps not precisely the right sentiment (I’m not advocating guys starting ballet just to meet girls!) but a good conversation starter.

One event that I think connected ballet and sport in a clever way to create genuine interest in both watching and doing ballet was an Royal Opera House “Insiders” (Under-30 Friends) evening hosted by Rugby Ralph Lauren (ROH Article). Alongside a preview of the fashion brand’s upcoming collection, the event featured a conversation between a Royal Ballet Soloist and professional rugby player. Although outwardly two very different disciplines, surprising similarities can arise between ballet and sports. This gives supporters and players of sports a tangible connection to ballet which can prompt them to go see ballet, or even take a class!

Royal Ballet Soloists Dawid Trzensimiech, Kristan McNally and Wasps scrum-half Charlie Davies at the Young Friends Insider event. (src:ROH)

Royal Ballet Soloists Dawid Trzensimiech, Kristan McNally and Wasps scrum-half Charlie Davies at the Young Friends Insider event. (src:ROH)

Whether we like it or not, social media and the web now surround us in our daily life. I initially set up a Twitter account when I started ballet as it gave me an informal way to ask (usually pretty stupid) questions about taking class. The relaxed feel of twitter meant I could ask fairly minor questions (“what is the difference between a glisse and jete?” or “should I wear a suit jacket to see a ballet?”) and get honest answers.

Harnessing the web was taken a step further in the hugely successful Royal Ballet Live (with accompanying Twitter hashtag #RBLive). I found this a great way to show my friends what dancing is like – I could post the livestream link to my Facebook wall and my friends could watch daily class, rehearsals and more. One particularly important part of the day in my eyes, was the fact that the host (TV and Radio Presenter George Lamb) had no prior knowledge of ballet. He was ably joined by Royal Ballet Soloist Kristen McNally (who has previously live-choreographed to Kanye West in an Apple Store (ROH Advert) – very cool!) which meant he could ask all the questions the non-experienced viewers wanted to ask. Throw in a Q&A/studio session with Wayne McGregor and Mark Ronson and ballet was indeed shown to be “cool” and “current”.

Putting ballet out of context is an awesome way of grabbing new audiences. In my opinion, one of the best ballet videos online is “Royal Ballet. Not what you think.” (embedded above) which was created by First Soloist Bennet Gartside. This features clips from ballets (classical and contemporary) backed with rap music. There’s such a cool juxtaposition between the dancing and music and it just “works” (even though it, perhaps, shouldn’t!). All my mates I have shown this to has been amazed and impressed, and more interested in going to see a live ballet. It reckons it’s best summed up in the following YouTube comment: “This is truly awesome. Unconventional but fantastic combo of music and dance. Brilliantly edited. Offers a totally different perspective on the passion, dedication, athleticism and artistry required for ballet. Absolutely love it, love it, love it!”.

It can be notoriously difficult to engage Generation Y, with their MTV-attention spans and heads constantly buried in their iPhones. One thing I’d encourage more than anything is to talk to youths who are already interested in ballet and try to harness their passion and knowledge. I happily spend a lot of time encouraging people to be interested in ballet, simply due to my passion for the artform – many others will do the same!

If you have any questions or want to discuss this further please feel free to email me on info@davetriesballet.com – I hope my thoughts have been of use!

So those are my (slightly rambling) thoughts. What do you think? Do you agree with my points, or disagree? Do you have any other ideas about what works/doesn’t work when engaging younger audiences? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to get a debate going!

Until next time, keep on dancing!