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!

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18 Comments

  1. I think what the National Ballet does in Toronto to engage gen-y is fantastic. They have a program called DanceBreak and it’s for people under the age of 30. It allows you to buy a ticket on the day of the performance for $30 and you can sit anywhere in the theatre (other than grand ring). It’s a fantastic way to get young people out to the ballet and fill seats. I go to every ballet and have seen so many others who are doing the same thing. With DanceBreak I’ve become a huge fan of the ballet because it makes it accessible to gen-y, which means once I’m wove 30 I will definitely be a subscriber to the ballet. They’ve made a lifelong fan out of me.

    I think that’s where the problem lies is that it’s not really accessible to us. I also think that ballet companies should be doing more on social and digital media to advertise and make people aware of what’s going on in their companies.

    Reply
    • I actually used the DanceBreak scheme when I was in Toronto last year for a conference. I was really impressed – especially as you could pick your seat, so I could sit next to a friend who already had a seat in the stalls! I think it’s great that such a scheme has helped you become a lifelong fan – when I first started seeing ballet I used New York City Ballet’s student rush scheme ($25 on day of performance) to see as much ballet as I could… and I’ve definitely become a lifelong fan!

      I agree that one of the key problems is accessibility. Most ballet companies/opera houses have some sort of scheme for students and/or Under 30s but often it can be hard to find any details…

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  2. While I agree with most (indeed the majority) of your points, I do feel that ballet is perhaps not entirely committed to reaching out to new audiences. Sure, they do their out of context events which are all very successful in interesting previously indifferent groups of people, but this isn’t followed up by a re-examination of ballet itself.

    I love Bennet’s video – it is brilliant on so many levels – but once a ballet newbie is engaged enough to purchase a ticket, they are still going to be confronted by exactly the same Swan Lake that put them off in the first place.

    Of course some people will be dazzled by the extraordinary skill and beauty on stage (as they should be) and become regulars, others might be enthralled by the music, but I suspect the majority will nod their heads, say: ‘That was nice’ and then never come again.

    Naturally, I’m not advocating a review of all the classics (the horror!) but if classical ballet has to see itself as something different to what is happening on-stage, then perhaps the on-stage needs re-examining.

    I know I harp on about racism in ballet (all very dull, and repetitive. I do appreciate that), but it does make me wonder what ballet companies really think they are doing when they do their best to attract minority groups into their seats, and then show them the Nutcracker, complete with the Danse chinoise. Or La Bayadere with it’s *endless* Orientalism nonsense. It’s all very well for ballet to *say* it is open to everyone, but that doesn’t stop the very strong message coming off the stage that it just *isn’t*.

    I just can’t help the feeling that ballet is very superficial in its desire to ‘reach out’.

    The marketing just does not match the product.

    Come see us. We’re great. We’re for everyone. But you gotta accept us as we are because WE AIN’T CHANGING.

    Even new ballets are subject to this historical eff-wittery *cough*Alice*cough*. It’s telling that whenever we hear of ballet pushing boundaries and *actually* reaching new audiences, it tends to focus on Wayne McGregor, the one choreographer to embrace pop (as in popular) music on the main stage of the ROH and drive in the cool crowd. He gets a lot of stick from the more traditional balletomanes, but I think he’s done more for the perception of ballet as an art form than a thousand Christmas crackers’ worth of Snoring Pretty Girls and Sugar coated fruits.

    Anyway, there’s lots more I could rant on about this subject, but this is getting to be rather a long comment and I’m sure everyone stopped reading three paragraphs ago.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the awesome response – I completely agree. One of the worst things that ballet “outreach” can do is form a disconnect between the advertisement and what occurs on stage.

      On the most serious point, I completely agree with you regarding the fact that a lot of classical ballet have racist elements and that this is unacceptable. I think the classical ballets need rexamining for today’s audience. I think this is easily done without “reinventing” the classics, or losing their integrity. They are part of ballet’s heritage and very important, but they shouldn’t stagnate, unnecessarily offend, nor block the way for new works.

      On your comment about McGregor I also agree – he seems to embrace modern culture entirely, whether through collaborations with music producers like Mark Ronson or visual artists like Julian Opie. I think he has made huge waves, not least because of the audience he draws in. It sounds superficial, but the fact that Kate Moss and Kylie Minogue came to see Carbon Life certainly ups ballet’s “cool” factor, and hopefully encouraged a few more people to come. Plus, I haven’t felt such a “buzz” in the ROH than at Carbon Life – so much energy from the stage and audience! (minus the occasional tutting audience member of course…) Here’s hoping for a revival…

      Reply
    • I won’t repeat the points I made in my reply to the article directly… but I have to disagree with the overall sentiment of your post. Accessibility does not mean that everyone has to like what you are offering, merely that they have a completely available chance to try. And to some extent, encourage them even if they don’t realise they might like it.

      Issues like racism are difficult I agree. Even if an artwork is considered racist, I don’t support censoring it or changing the artistic intent. However, we have to factor in that many of these pieces are products of their times. If something was written when racism wasn’t considered a problem, then it is likely to just be a matter-of-fact decision rather than an artistic choice by the writer. If this is causing problems of accessibility, then I feel it’s appropriate to try to remove this in a way that doesn’t change the spirit of the piece. Especially in performance works like opera and ballet; heavens knows enough productions change them far more damagingly for far less noble reasons. So I support that. But this seems like something you have thought about a lot more than I have, so I don’t mean to argue about it.

      But for the person who watches the Tinie Tempah mashup and gets disappointed by Swan Lake, I have to say, maybe ballet just isn’t for them? If I enjoy a video of clips from 2001: A Space Odyssey cut to a Daft Punk track I like, does that mean that I will enjoy the film? Of course not, a 5 minute track cannot compare to the 10 hour experience of watching that film — at least it feels like it. Which isn’t a criticism, in real life I happen to like the film as well, but there are different factors at play. In hypothetical land where I hated the film, should Stanley Kubrick, or any other filmmaker, write something that better fits my expectations? No, it’s up to them how they create their art. It could just be that I don’t enjoy films, in which case I should stick to mashups on YouTube.

      I’m stretching this a bit thin. The point is that it sounds like you don’t think most people today are capable of appreciating a work like Swan Lake (at least not as their first trip), so ballet needs to change its game in order to get them on board. I think that’s completely wrong. I only got into opera and ballet as a young adult, I am firmly in Generation Y, but I love the classics. A lot more than the modern works. In fact if anything, I think that modern opera is far less likely to impress the average new listener than classical-romantic era pieces.

      I applaud the people who continue to push boundaries for artistic reasons. Wayne McGregor does a better job for ballet than any current opera composer, in my opinion. If he wants to do so to try to reach new audiences, then that’s great, art should be diverse. But if someone doesn’t like Swan Lake, or Infra, or any other ballet they’ve seen, then it’s absolutely fine to just say “okay, you don’t like ballet”. There’s no need for ballet to change to fit them. And more importantly, I still think a classical piece is a better first ballet experience for someone than something modern, even if the majority of people would just say “that was nice”, because honestly I think going to the modern one would elicit “that was weird”. It’s condescending to assume that if someone isn’t already a fan of ballet then the only way to get them interested is by trying to merge it with things they already like or bring in some famous people to make them think it’s cool. Not that I disapprove of doing either of those things, it’s just that I think they are more exciting to people who are already fans of ballet. Years ago, before I was at all interested in this scene, anything to do with opera/ballet just wasn’t on my radar, even those that involved other things I liked. I really think the best way that it could have reached out to me would have been through honest, good, communication, such as the trailers that the ROH produces for its film seasons.

      Reply
  3. Glad to see the Not What You Think video back online. I had included it in my best of 2011 picks a while back, then sometime in 2012 it disappeared (presumably taken offline for violation of copyright infringement?) Whatever the reason, I’m glad it’s back, and I agree – even though I normally don’t like to see original music ripped from dance clips – this particular editing job achieves its marketing purpose brilliantly. Wish they could sell ballet without quite so many crotch-shot camera angles, though :-(

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    • I didn’t realise it had (temporarily) vanished… I agree that I mostly like to watch dance with the original music (dance is the visual representation of the music after all, right?) but I think this works to such great effect. The timing is immaculate – especially the beating of the swan corps wings! I see your point about the crotch shots too… :-/

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  4. Young people are obsessed with sex and getting high. Always been like it. For centuries. Who in his right mind would go to a theatre at the age of 19 or 23?
    When you settle down, get bored with your life and think you have tried everything (like I did), then yes. You might seek out something like ballet. Classic or modern. Or a musical. Or sky-diving.
    This initiative is going to be fruitless.

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    • I respectfully disgree! Not least because I don’t want to admit defeat before even trying :)

      I personally don’t think you have to be bored with your life to see a ballet – I’m certainly not bored with my life… When Kaspar Holten spoke at the last Student Amphitheatre performance, he talked about how opera and ballet are artforms that truly tackle the big questions and emotions in life. You have characters sacrificing themselves for love, you have characters faced with truly life/death decisions, you have characters fighting for their lives. I’d argue that’s pretty exciting! You get to empathize with characters in situations that (hopefully) are more extreme than you will ever experience, and travel on that journey with them. I’ve felt thrill and despair at a ballet that I’ve never felt anywhere else… Give me a ballet over sky-diving any day!

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  5. Hi Dave (Clare of RESEO) just responding from Seattle now- that’s so fantastic that you have started a discussion trail and such valid points from everyone Thankyou – I’m going to link the RESEO dance members on FB group to your blog so that they can follow. Unfortunately the education departments don’t get to impact the main stage scheduling and choreography too much – but do agree on this kind of disconnect you identify. It’s the education departments who initiate the ‘outreach’ and the genuine desire to engage all in such inspirational forms – but as far as main stage programming the education dept “get what they get” and have to make the best of it as tools to engage. We will look at that ‘disconnect’ and see if anyway to influence. All the European dance creative learning managers who attended my session were palpably inspired by the “ballet not what you think” video I showed them all Dave and definitely took on board your observations – think you will have a few more discrete followers shortly!

    Reply
    • Thanks for the feedback Clare! I’m glad that the piece was of use, and I’m really enjoying hearing people’s thoughts in this discussion. In fact, I think following some of the discussions that I would probably write it a little differently! Looking forward to hearing different views and responses and keeping the discussion going!

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  6. I agree with a lot of your points Dave, but I actually want to speak slightly in opposition of some of the points in the piece and in the comments. I think the ‘Not What You Think’ video is very well done in terms of editing, but it didn’t actually impress me that much when I first saw it. Mostly because I feel it kind of misses the point, it’s at risk of contradicting what you said earlier in your piece about trying too hard, and is almost slightly insulting to ‘Gen Y’. I don’t think that people need to be tricked into thinking ballet and opera is something it isn’t, because maybe ballet isn’t necessarily ‘What I Think’, but it isn’t exactly what that video conveys either.

    Now I love juxtaposition between art forms too, but that’s as a fan of both of those art forms already. To do this specifically to try to attract younger audiences, especially by trying to make it ‘more hip’, is frankly a bit patronising to those audiences. The truth is that most young adults are perfectly capable of appreciating the art form for what it is, in both classical and modern pieces. But the little they know about it is just some incorrect assumptions: it amazes me how many people don’t know that operas have sub/surtitles so you can understand the story, or think that you have to dress up smart to be allowed in. The problem is that they aren’t going to just randomly fact check these; they are too busy getting on with their lives. This is true of everyone: of course the people browsing this website know about ballet, but I bet they all have incorrect assumptions about some other hobby. It’s only if someone comes along and says ‘hey, this isn’t as inaccessible as you think, and you might even enjoy it’ that people might take notice. Even then it can take a long time before someone actually gets round to trying it, and when they do they might say ‘why didn’t I do this sooner?’.

    My point is that I think the most respectful way to get people to engage is to try to present it honestly, then people can decide for themselves. The reason Generation Y might not respond to that is just the same reason that someone of any other generation might not, or why you ignored that flyer on your doormat this morning inviting you to the boules tournament, or the advert on the bus suggesting to try the local sushi restaurant. Maybe you’d love boules, or sushi… one day you might try them, but tonight “I’m busy going to the ballet”. And for the record, I think the Royal Opera House is doing a great job of this honest promotion, with enough Hollywood theatricality thrown in to make it exciting.

    Okay, so there are modern ballets which probably are ‘Not What You Think’ to the majority of the audience (although as a side-note, still not the up-tempo street dance vibe I get from that video — at least not in the ballets I’ve seen which are in the video). However my point is that for the majority of people, especially the kind of people who like art and theatre to begin with, the ‘Swan Lake’ style of ballet isn’t what is putting them off. They just don’t know really anything about it, and have never taken it upon themselves to learn more. So, we should keep giving them opportunities, and then guide them if they show interest. But not feel like the only way we can get their attention is with something different, or something they already know.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your awesome reply – I agree and disagree with some of your points too! :)

      I don’t think the “Not What You Think” video is being patronising. I agree that the best way to show audiences ballet is to be honest with them. But, following from your point about people having incorrect assumptions about ballet/opera (very true!), often people will immediately dismiss ballet or opera because of those misconceptions (or think all ballets/opera fit a certain mold). I think videos like this one, offer a small dose of familiarity to the situation for some people so they can see visually what goes on in a collection of ballets. I guess an analogy (in my mind) is an advert for a TV show/film that uses music that isn’t in the show/film – it is there to glue together clips and add something to them. To have a compilation of ballets you will always need some kind of backing music, and I don’t see why it can’t be something away from classical music.

      I agree that honesty is the best policy, and following from discussions in these comments I now am more aware of not “misselling” the product. I guess it is a fine line between trying to attract new audiences by trying to link things with something they have more familiarity with, and being patronising. I’m kind of glad I don’t have to organise advertisements and walk that thin line!

      Reply
      • Haha me too! At least the consolation is that we don’t have to walk that line, there are very talented people doing it for us :). I was in the cinema seeing something completely unrelated to opera/ballet, and an advert for the cinema screenings came on. I’m not sure if it was from the ROH or the Met, but the song was O mio babbino caro. Someone beside me asked me about the song wondering what it was. I really think things like that get through to people, eventually!

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  8. I’m at the older end of “Gen Y”, but here’s my two cents. I want to do things, not watch other people do things.

    I grew up playing in a classical orchestra, and I take ballet classes today. I should be the poster child for “Gen Y’ers who go to the ballet”, but I hate going to the ballet. It’s boring to watch. There, I said it.

    If you want me to watch ballet, you need to mix it up put it in a new medium — like the video with hip-hop music on Youtube, which people overwhelmingly enjoyed. Paying $100 to sit next to a crying baby for 3 hours is what old people used to do for entertainment. They also had polio.

    When it comes to watching other people do things, it’s hard to compete with “what’s cool on Youtube today”, which is basically the world’s highlight reel. The theatre, the opera, and the symphony are all feeling this pinch. It’s not a new development: in Tchaikovsky’s day, people didn’t want to go out to hear baroque music, either. If you can’t set trends, you at least have to keep up with them.

    I think it’d actually be easier to get people to do ballet themselves. Yoga, Pilates, Zumba, P90X — people these days are doing all kinds of things to get in shape. Why not ballet? I know there are lots of traditionalists who would scoff at the idea of presenting ballet as anything other than “ballet for its own sake”, but there has to be a way to reach people without losing the essence of ballet. That’s always the tradeoff with the arts: unless nobody has heard of your art form (not a problem with ballet), you’ve already reached all the people who want it for its own sake. To reach more people, you need to change and adapt.

    When the harpsichord fell out of fashion, symphony orchestras didn’t double-down on harpsichord music. They started playing Mahler and Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and John Williams. In the dance world, Tchaikovsky and Petipa were great for their day, but they’ve been dead for a while now.

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