ABT’S TOGETHER TONIGHT

American Ballet Theatre just made ballet history and made ballet even more accessible to everyone.

While in the past few years, ABT has struggled with staying ahead of the curve of ballet innovation, ABT just blew everyone out of the water and jumped into the future of the art. Their fresh creativity via archived footage, rehearsal footage, and professionally recorded performances took us through the ranks of JKO to Principal Dancer in an all star-studded cast. 

Supporters spanning Hollywood’s elite to the New York Yankees, and profiles of principal dancers past and present, created a way to make ballet feel right for everyone. 

It is no secret that film and ballet haven’t always gone hand in hand, however, tonight demonstrated what happens when ballet is approached lovingly and broadly. By explaining ballet in-depth, conducting intimate interviews, and profiling new and thought-provoking choreography projects, the broadcast just put ABT ahead of any ballet company in the world by an entire generation. 

This single broadcast might be the most influential and most meaningful dance work created in the last, well ever. It wasn’t a documentary or an individual performance; it was the reality of everyday people doing extraordinary things in the arts. It had the most beautiful campaigns and cinematography combined with real-life facetime and zoom footage, making it even more real and relatable. Most impressively it combined both Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and the usual behind the scenes Executive Director Kara Medoff Barnett to the front of ABT.

Our Common Fate, a new collaborative work by Jessica Lang and Tony Bennet, was inspired by quarantine and led the continued parade of beauty and exceptional moments. Danced by Aran Bell and Catherine Hurlin (the next Gillian and Ethan) around Central Park, the ending with the dancers waving up at Bennet left us with some kind of feeling. 

The other features ranging from the budding talent of Studio Company, to the love of ballet in the students of JKO, highlighted the bright future of ballet. The inclusion of the ABT orchestra playing the finale of the Brahams Haydn Variations together from home was mesmerizing and moving.

Of Love and Rage showcased the crew of ABT building the sets from start to finish on stage in Orange County to the rehearsing of Aran and Catherine (Caty). It highlighted the sheer manpower needed to put on one of ABT’s productions.

Members of the company, both male and female, performed the entrance of the swans from the second act of Swan Lake from their respective shelter at home locations. 

Cynthia Erivo sang  America the Beautiful with dancers dancing around the Kennedy Center, the emptiness of Lincoln Center and New York, and people dancing at home across the US filmed from the outside. 

Instagram favorite, James Whiteside, one of the fundraising campaign’s curators, announced that ABT would be starting an online series over the next eight weeks and bring you inside the studios of ABT. This entire film and broadcast were to help raise funds for ABT’s Crisis Relief Fund. You can donate or bid on silent auction items here.

While this was a fundraising campaign, it was probably the most glamorous, well thought out, put together, edited, campaign the ballet world has seen in a while. And while ABT’s JKO school is still trying to figure out their digital summer program, we shall see if the school is able to create something as innovative as the company.

How Corona Virus is Shaping the Next Generation of Dancers

Today hit harder than most days. A wave of devastation came across hundreds of young talented dancers as some of the most prestigious ballet schools announced they are canceling their summer intensives. Earlier in the month Houston Ballet already made some tough but responsible choices regarding their summer course, but today Royal Ballet and San Francisco also announced their program cuts. While this is devastating to hundreds, it is the socially responsible thing to do. But how does an 11-year-old or a 12-year-old cope and deal with understanding the larger picture, a picture that not only includes ballet but the entire world?

As a school director, today devastated my students as our entire school was committed either San Francisco Ballet School or Royal Ballet. While our YAGP winners were already devastated earlier this month from the canceling of finals, today was another hard, but expected blow. We had already proposed a stay at home summer course for our students, but it doesn’t compare to the opportunities that were going to lie ahead of them. Most of the winners of YAGP have already committed to international courses across the world, and now they are left with nothing. A year’s worth of hard work gone to the wayside, thousands of dollars in competitive fees, tutus and pointe shoes are now wasted. While these are only short term goals, it is still devastating.

For a lot of young dancers, who are now 17-19, they are realizing that their dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer might not ever happen as companies are announcing their budget cuts and financial strains. Professionals are now questioning their job security and what the future is going to hold for them. And while this economy has tanked, the economic and social trends of ballet and the world have been sped up tenfold.

So what does this all mean?

Ballet for the Masses: Companies are finally realizing what I have been saying for a long time… BROADCAST your performances for a fee. People will pay! So if you are in Los Angeles you now can watch New York City Ballet and so on and so forth. City Ballet will be broadcasting Tuesdays and Thursdays, with Wendy Whelan Lecturing and teaching movement classes. But this now just exponentially opened up your ticket sales. The world can now watch ballet from anywhere at any given time, and while it doesn’t replace the magic of live theatre, it does increase ticket sales by demographically… billions… So if you are an ED or AD out there, I hope you listen and take advantage of what is about it come.

Big Names & Big Talent: With everyone now on social media, and social media numbers being driven up 300% on Instagram and TikTok becoming the fastest growing platform, social media is now more important than ever. Star-studded live classes with principal dancers are selling, but now, taking alongside start-studded students is a BIG thing. Those who are on social media and these kids are becoming more and more circulated and more and more recognized, meaning these are the names that will be driving ticket sales in 3-5 years if not sooner. So, don’t miss the bandwagon. If there is anything that COVID-19 has taught us is that the “influence” you have on social media really does matter. The bigger the name, the more likely a company will be reaching out to you to “collaborate” or “virtually teach” or “virtually take class with”.

VIRTUAL BALLET: While Virtual Ballet is now becoming more and more of reality, and that people are now realizing they can train just about anywhere, or take private lessons from many principal dancers and top coaches, ballet is becoming even more elite and even conservative. Ballet Schools are now recruiting left and right as they can now virtually see thousands of dancers in a week and recruit into their schools.

The rise of the Powerhouse Schools: Ballet schools around the world have always been categorized into three categories. Whether or not we like to admit this or not, it is truth. The categories have always been:
A Professional School (A school with a pre-professional program attached to a professional company)
Competitive Commercial School (Intensive comp schools that are industry-based driven and placing commercial and contemporary dancers into broadway jobs or agencies)
And recreational, or as a lot of elite snobs like to call them: the dolly-dinkle schools.

But here is the problem that COVID has made. Professional schools are now going to be falling to the waste side as the quality is going to go down. Trainee and pre-pro programs are going to be flooded with kids to make up for the financial shortcomings of social distancing. It already happened in 2008, and a lot of these schools are still trying to “recover” their training reputations. But, because of this pandemic, we are now looking at an even bigger flood of trainee programs. It is already hard enough to see a once prestigious ballet school with a company that has a historical name in Chicago had over 30 Trainees this season, with maybe 4 job openings. 30+ kids paying 17-30k a year is a lot of dollars… and so this model of flooding trainee programs will now be the standard to make up for the financial losses in ballet.

This means that schools like Ellison, Elite Classical Coaching, Southland Academy, ICSB, Cary, Sarasota Cuban Ballet, Master Ballet Academy, The Ballet Clinic, Central New Jersey, Golden State, Skyra, and others are going to rise to the top as the most sought after training grounds. Programs with exclusivity and pristine training are going to take even more prominence than before, as they continuously produce strong dancers. While these schools are already powerhouse players at the YAGP, and powerhouses on social media, these schools are just continually going to rise to the top.

So at the end of all of this, who is going to have a job in ballet? Over the next 3-5 years the ones who will be getting jobs are going to be grouped into three categories:

  1. Good bodies for the corps de ballet.
  2. Social Media stars who will sell seats, who are technically gifted and that will have the chance to continue to build a name for themselves and become household names. We originally saw this trend 2011/2012 with the documentary “First Position” and the start of the rise of YAGP and Social Media. Now they are soloists and doctors. Now that we don’t need documentaries because we can follow social media stories, it is going to push this trend even faster.

So, while we try to comfort our dancers and tell them everything is going to be okay, we also need to be honest with them, and constantly remind them that this can not crush them into an oblivion and that you must continue to work harder, push harder, and be even more dedicated so that when all of this is over, and the dust starts to settle they will be one of the ones who will be considered for a job. It is now more than ever, that the focus and rigor of ballet can not fade out, it can not take a backseat, and it can not go to the waste. It is time to realize that you either want this 100 percent and you are going to kill yourself to even have the slightest chance at a job, or you are just going to go to college, or that maybe you don’t want this professionally. Regardless, it is only going to get harder to find a job, so you all need to work 10 times harder, and 20 times smarter.

COVID-19 and the Great Divide in Ballet

So recently, a well-known illustrator recently asked me to illustrate a picture of myself during the quarantine. This picture was supposed to be a self-portrait, but with one condition. The idea was to be looking through the outside and onto you quarantined on the inside. Well, I initially said, “Yeah, sure, no problem.” And so I started, but then I realized that while his portrait was from a small window with telephone lines and trash cans outside his window, and how poetic he must look, mine, on the other hand, would just come off as pretentious and privileged. And while I have worked hard for my success, as I illustrated where I lived and how I lived, I realized that this is just not among artists but also among the dancers of the world.

For those who have home studios or rooms dedicated to dancing in their homes, this transition to virtual ballet has been a lot easier. This is an apparent show of privilege, and regardless of the hard work and success your family has amounted, it still is the reality that ballet is an elite art form. Then, if you look at a lot of these professional dancers broadcasting from home, we are getting an intimate look inside their life. Their kitchen counters are granite; their floors are hardwood; there are sweeping cityscape views and works of art that were not mass-produced.

View of a Coronavirus Covid-19 background – 3d rendering

But the majority of dancers are struggling. Most people can’t afford to buy Marley and a barre on a whim and set up a studio. Most people don’t have a home gym inside their home, and for a lot of young dancers, they can’t afford to continue training because of the lack of income coming in from their parents. I am not attacking those who can afford it, I am just stating a fact.

The world is scary, and the world has a lot of uncertainties right now, but one of the big things COVID-19 is doing, is creating art for all and opportunities for young dancers to keep dancing. All of these free Instagram live streams are inspiring and needed, but then it also raises the point: How are you able to train without getting corrections? It makes people think, “Why pay my student’s online class tuition when I can take from all of these amazing teachers and professional dancers for free?” This logic is flawed too. Since live streams you don’t get corrections, you won’t progress as fast. If you stop going to your school, there is a chance that your school will close because of the financial strain. There are a lot of factors and variables just continually changing out there, and for most, everyone is winging it.

But, the truth of the matter is: What we see during this quarantine is the haves and the have nots of the dance world.

We see those teachers who are setting up home setups with three iPads and two computers, students who have built-in studios at home, the intimate insides of one’s home, and so forth. And while ballet is coming together to provide free resources to help, it still does not close the gap for what is going to come next…

Who is going to be able to afford to come back to dancing after months of no income? Who is able to keep training and staying in shape during this time, and who is not? Who is going to keep progressing, or who is going to fall behind? It will divide those who really want this, and those who were doing it for social aspects, or fun aspects. It is going to divide companies with strong endowments and funding and those who were already struggling to stay afloat. It is going to divide ballet by a lot. It is going to define a generation of dancers who might not get employed. It is going to keep changing the way we move forward drastically. And while I don’t have all the answers, and I wish I did, it just makes me wonder what is going to happen next?

A BALLET EDUCATION’S MAGAZINE