Battle Ballet: Artistic Integrity vs. Commercial Viability

Theatre of Dionysus at Athens
The origins of theater in Ancient Greece

Performance art truly came into focus in 6th century Greece, thanks mainly to the worshippers of the god Dionysus. What originally started as ceremony quickly turned into a festival and, more importantly, a contest. The audience reaction would decide these contests, so performers had to think not only of what was artistically valid, but what would get the desired reaction.

As this art form grew, so did the idea that if audiences wanted this entertainment, then audiences should have to pay for it. Artists now found themselves not just performing for their audience’s approval but to use their art as a means to survive. In today’s market, thousands upon thousands of artistic companies and individuals rely on the financial success of their performances to survive. Revenue from ticket sales is a vital component to their business model.

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When ticket sales play such an important role in the budget, however, questions like “What will inspire you as an artist?” and “What will challenge and reward our performers?” are often replaced by “What will sell?”

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What. Will. Sell. This is the conversation executive directors and artistic directors have on a regular basis. It’s wonderful to offer performances that are artistically fulfilling for directors and performers, but if they’re played to empty houses, you can’t sustain it.

Tired Dancers
You cannot afford to have uninspired performers

Conversely, if you only perform audience favorites, your directors and performers will grow tired and uninspired — it’s a recipe for failure. If your performers are not artistically satisfied, then they will stop caring or else leave your company. Either of which will drop the quality of your performances, and when that happens you will see an equal or greater drop in attendance and donations.

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So the goal is easy: make everyone happy all the time.

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In the classical ballet world, The Nutcracker is a perfect example of programming for revenue. The majority of ballet companies perform The Nutcracker every single year, often offering more performances of it than any other production. Do they do this because dancers really love this piece more than any other ballet? Do they do this because artistic directors look forward to it every year? No. They do it because it has become a holiday tradition and because it’s a great source of income. Ticket sales for our Nutcracker at Oklahoma City Ballet makes up more than 20 percent of our entire income for the fiscal year. Add in merchandise sales and a slew of press and you can see why The Nutcracker is not our choice to perform. It is a mandate.

OKC Ballet 14-15 Season Brochure Cover
OKC Ballet 2014-15 season brochure cover

But this is a particularly tricky subject. Not only must you be concerned with what your average ticket buyer wants to see, you must also be concerned with what your donors want. They do not always reflect the opinion of general audience members, especially if you consider the demographics of the major donors of classical arts. But when ticket sales as well as donations stand as your two major funding sources, both must be made happy.

If that weren’t enough to consider, there is also your board. Typical boards for typical nonprofit arts organizations are made up of people with a lot to a little experience with your art form. What most of them do have experience in is business. They have an entirely different opinion than your audience or donors, too, because they have a fiduciary responsibility to your organization. The need for strong ticket sales, therefore, is very personal to them. All this must be taken into serious consideration when choosing your productions for a season.

There are several strategies to try and balance this dichotomy, but most are based on one overriding rule: your audience must see your organization as a vital cultural component to your community. When this occurs, it will not matter to your audiences (as much) what the performance is: they will attend because they support your organization.

Enter marketing. To be viewed as a vital cultural component, a necessity, you must look like one. Marketing budgets are cut too often for the sake of production and overhead, while remaining of utmost importance. Marketing must not be solely focused on generating ticket sales: You are not just marketing your upcoming production, you are marketing your company. You are aligning mission and product with community.

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OKC Ballet Thunder Photo
Rim shot: Miki Kawamura

At the Oklahoma City Ballet, one of our most popular posts online had nothing to do with a performance. In the photo at left, one of our principal dancers, Miki Kawamura, is seen about to dunk a basketball wearing the Oklahoma City Thunder jersey and a tutu. At last check, this photo has been seen by more than 700,000 people and shared in 67 countries.

But marketing alone won’t suddenly bring in patrons to your productions that do not sell as well. Many times the problem is not that the audience doesn’t appreciate each of your unique productions, they are simply not familiar with them.

Two seasons ago, our company performed a triple bill (three shorter ballets put on one performance) entitled Director’s Choice. This is a common title for triple bills, but we found it didn’t sell as well as we hoped.

Exurgency by Matthew Neenan
OKC Ballet performing Exurgency

For last season we did another triple bill, only we picked one piece to highlight. The most familiar piece we highlighted was a shorter version of the well known Carmen, played alongside Rubies by George Balanchine, and a brand new piece, Exurgency, by guest choreographer Matthew Neenan. This production almost doubled the number of tickets sold to the previous triple bill, but for me the best result was the audience’s reaction. Many people commented how much they enjoyed the “new, more contemporary ballet by Matthew Neenan.” By almost doubling the number of people who attended that triple bill, we exposed so many more people to new, exciting work.

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Do not look at any of this as a quick fix: I learn more and more every day and I make mistakes along the way. We all do. But it is important to try new strategies as we prepare for the next generation of arts patrons and supporters, and to keep in mind the same balance that the Ancient Greeks had to think about, too.