As dance companies face shrinking audiences and rapidly changing demographics, the new campaign for Miami City Ballet aims for publicity that breaks down many of the perceived stereotypes and clichés. It presents ballet as an entertainment choice that is cool and relevant to a younger audience, shunning the outdated and stuffy image that has kept an entire generation away.
Like the opera or a symphony orchestra, going to "the ballet" was once an event in itself. As season-ticket holders and loyal audience members have gotten older, though, younger audiences haven't found much incentive to go. "We live in a multimedia, multi-stimuli world where consumers want bigger, better, more amazing things all going on at once," says David Jacobson, director of brand strategy at Turbulence, the agency that created the campaign for the ballet company. "Cirque du Soleil is a great example. Ballet simply ceased to connect with people in a society that shuns the old and constantly wants new forms of media and entertainment."
The decline has crossed over to other types of traditionally highbrow entertainment, too. New York's Metropolitan Opera felt the pinch of slowing ticket sales earlier this year. As a result, it created a campaign to lure younger audiences and those who had never been to an opera before. In an August 29, 2006, New York Times article Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, admitted in the that "the challenge is to convince [patrons] that opera is an entertainment form that can be very satisfying."
Like the Met, Miami City Ballet is looking at ways to make sure its performances are satisfying and to engage a new and younger audience with an updated appeal. "As with most cultural performing arts organizations, Miami City Ballet's audience skews older," says E.L. "Pete" Upham, the ballet company's director of marketing and communications. "We realize the importance of expanding this traditional base (without losing it), and are looking at everything from programming to branding to the use of different media to accomplish this. The hiring of Turbulence was a major element in this audience expansion program."
To understand where ballet might begin to appeal to new audiences, you have to consider some of the recent trends emerging in pop culture. In particular, television programs featuring dancing—such as Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance—were ratings successes. Although these shows didn't feature ballet, per se, ballroom dancing has become more mainstream—and accessible—thanks to these shows.
"[These shows] have taken dancing to a level where dance has become an entertainment choice to viewers of all ages," says Michael Carandang, senior associate producer at The Tyra Banks Show. "These shows have suddenly made dance very cool and hip, and something to which a younger audience can really easily relate."
But it isn't just television where dance has become popular. The hottest shoes this season are ballerina flats, an example of classical ballet reinvented with a modern flavor. Labels from Steve Madden to Dolce & Gabbana featured ballet flats in their collections.
Miami City Ballet is capitalizing on these trends by focusing not on the artistic aspects of ballet, but on its entertainment value. "We created a campaign that embodies the spirit of these dancers, and translates into a language that younger audiences can totally connect with and relate to," says Turbulence president Tom Moleta.
Arts, Entertainment, and More
What will make ballet more entertaining and engaging for younger audiences? Edward Villella, who is Miami City Ballet's founding artistic director, thinks younger audiences will discover a love of ballet because "much of our repertoire is centered around neo-classical and also some important contemporary works. Although most of these ballets are abstract, they frequently comment on modern life and modern problems. In addition, they are terrifically exciting from a visual standpoint. The works of George Balanchine, in particular, are filled with energy, athleticism, and artistry that appeal to all age groups—but particularly younger audiences."
And to attract a younger audience, ballet is being positioned as a sport unlike any other. It's no longer an unreachable, esoteric art form; it is entertainment performed by amazing, dedicated, professional athletes.
(Miami City Ballet is not alone in the portrayal of the ballet dancer as athlete. The American Ballet Theater, based in New York City, commissioned a series of highly contemporary images by Roy Round, which capture the energy and athleticism of dancers, while breaking away from the stereotype of delicate dancers performing Swan Lake.)
Super Human, the name of the campaign developed by Turbulence, uses imagery that ''is about the true athleticism of ballet—and people can relate to that,'' says Turbulence's Jacobson. "We have to show that ballet is more than men and women dancing across the stage in tights and tutus." The visuals are designed to evoke a sense of awe, with an underlying sensuality—instead of fragile dancers performing recherché twirls.
The revised brand image takes what has always has been true about Miami City Ballet, but presents it in a new light that speaks in a tone and language entirely relevant to the younger audience. For anyone thinking that going to the ballet is a stuffy or boring affair, the Super Human campaign hopes to change that perception.
Of course, none of the rebranding efforts would make the slightest bit of impact if the ballet company wasn't able to back up its claims. Miami City Ballet has received widespread critical acclaim from dance critics nationwide. With 50 of the most talented and dedicated dancers in the world, it's doing the work of a company three times its size. Villella, the artistic director, is one of the most acclaimed dancers of the 20th century and the company has performed the most difficult classical pieces right alongside modern dance compositions.
What this ultimately means is that cultural institutions like the ballet will have to become more mainstream and evolve in order to survive. Rethinking and revising the appeal for new and modern audiences hasn't isn't easily in an industry steeped in tradition. While going to the ballet may not supersede other forms of modern entertainment, this latest move by Miami City Ballet has set a precedent in the way in which other ballet companies—as well as other highbrow cultural organizations like opera companies and symphony orchestras—will market themselves in the future.
"Traditional, one-dimensional imagery of ballet just doesn't relate to modern culture anymore" says Jose Reyes, who is the creative director at Turbulence and the creator of exhibition spaces dedicated to supporting emerging artists. "People want more out of their entertainment dollar, so we're going beyond the literal image of what dancers are doing on stage and hitting on multiple senses—art, music, beauty, sport, entertainment."
And with that, ballet promises to be more things to everyone, young and old.