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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Strike Against New York City Ballet

By Tom Phillips

Full disclosure:  I did go to see Balanchine's Nutcracker at the David H. Koch Theater, paying $91 each for seats in the fourth ring, in order to bring a friend who'd never seen it.  It was a wonderful show as always.  But that's it, now I'm on strike against New York City Ballet.
I have seen hundreds of performances there since it opened as the New York State Theater in 1964, and written dozens of reviews over the last few years.  But I hereby vow to buy no more tickets, nor review any shows, nor accept any free press tickets, until the company reverses its ruinous new ticket price policies and invites the public back in. 

Is this fair?  I ask myself.  Dancers are fond of pointing out that the company does have bills to pay, and a multi-million dollar deficit.  How else can they survive?   I must answer that the company has brought its problems on itself, with decades of bad leadership, and the way back begins with changes at the top.

First to go should be Peter Martins, the ballet master in chief for nearly 30 years, who has proved unable to produce shows that the public will pay to see.  It’s not his fault that he is a poor choreographer.  But it is his fault that he has insisted on remaining the company’s chief choreographer through decades of badly-reviewed, badly-attended flops, culminating this year with the sinking of “Ocean’s Kingdom,” his collaboration with Paul and Stella McCartney.

At the same time, the NYCB Board of Directors should take a look at itself.  In the absence of strong leadership from the artistic side, it is the board that must take responsibility for change.  Dominated by Wall Street investment bankers, CEOs and socialites, it seems to have no artistic ideas, other than repackaging ballet as a media art and selling it on TV.   But ballet is not a media art, it depends on a live audience.  And the NYCB board has approved a catastrophic new pricing policy designed to drive away its live audience.    

I don't personally know any of the current board members, but as a member of the press I have often found myself seated among them in the orchestra section.  During intermissions I have listened to them chat about board meetings, parties, weddings and galas.  I don’t believe I ever heard a serious discussion of the ballet.  I always felt uncomfortable in the orchestra, partly because I missed the company of real balletomanes, dancers and ballet students, who sat in the third and fourth rings, where the view of the choreography is better, and where the seats were cheap enough to allow a person of modest means to make ballet a passion.   Philip Johnson, the architect who designed the theater for Balanchine and Kirstein, made the fourth ring by far the largest.   It’s an architectural marvel – a deep horseshoe that feels like a theater in itself, with perfect sight-lines for dance.  Rows A and B, in front of the aisle and close to the stage, could be the best seats in the whole house.   I and many other balletomanes have learned most of what we know starting in the fourth ring.   

So now, New York City Ballet is closing it.   

After repeated seasons of half-empty houses, NYCB will shut down the top half of the theater for most performances this winter season.   Subscribers and habitu├ęs of the third and fourth rings will have no choice but to find seats in the lower rings, at steeply higher prices except for a limited number of $29 seats with bad sight lines.  According to a person with knowledge of the events, the board acted after commissioning a study and receiving recommendations from an outside consulting group.  

What were they thinking?  How can you develop an audience by squeezing your long-time friends, and pricing tickets beyond the range of younger patrons?   I don’t know, and my calls to the NYCB press office for comment were not returned.  But I’m not the first to go on strike.  The boycott began last summer, when subscribers received their renewal offers, with the attendant sticker shock.  You can read a long string of protests at the Ballet Alert! website, under the headline “NYC Ballet Prices: Audience member goes on strike.”

What’s wrong with this picture?  The board is running this company as if it were a doing a leveraged buyout – downsizing the customer base and trying to milk more revenue out of those who remain.  That’s a short-term strategy that might work for an airline or a mining monopoly.  But it’s a disaster for an arts organization, especially a national treasure like NYCB that lives not by the laws of supply and demand, but by making new friends and keeping the old.   

What’s the right answer?  The same as it has always been – to put on shows that will excite the audience and fill the house.   Then you can sell the expensive seats, and make money on the third and fourth rings as well.  And when people love you, fund-raising becomes a lot easier.   The answer is art – and it’s out there. 
The world’s top choreographic talent has been available to New York City ballet, but somehow the company could not sustain its relationships with Alexei Ratmansky or Christopher Wheeldon.   And it wasted a unique resource by driving away Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine’s ultimate muse.   She has had only spotty success trying to recreate the Balanchine canon with a small pickup company, when she could have been teaching and staging ballets in her artistic home.
It’s not too late.  Those talents could be lured back.  New York City Ballet still has the best home-grown company of dancers in America, the best repertory, the best school, a gorgeous theater (credit where credit is due to Koch’s $100 million renovation gift) a fine orchestra and music director, and a huge base of followers loyal to the Balanchine/Robbins tradition. 

But there’s no time to waste.  In case NYCB hasn’t noticed, American Ballet Theater has set out to claw them off their perch as American’s foremost dance troupe.   ABT now has Ratmansky as its resident choreographer, and his new Nutcracker at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with tickets at popular prices.  After years as an international pickup company, ABT now has its own school, and a Studio Company that serves as a training ground.  
ABT also has something else that NYCB crucially lacks – an artistic director.   This is a huge hole in NYCB’s management chart.   An organization of this size needs a strong figure to mediate between the financiers on the board, the choreographers and dancers in the studio, and the audience in the theater.   ABT has artistic director Kevin McKenzie to handle all that, and Ratmansky to make the ballets.  NYCB has nothing but Martins, plus an executive director (Katherine Brown) whose role is limited to promotion and fund-raising. 

It is past time for the NYCB board to begin the search for new leaders.   There are plenty of candidates, starting with the former NYCB dancers who now run arts organizations around the country, who know and love the company and who have a better sense of what the public will pay to see.  And who would do the job for less than the $600 thousand-plus salary the board has lavished on Martins.   

Wake up, Wall Street.   You can’t do this without the 99 percent. 

Copyright 2011 by Tom Phillips 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The David H. Koch Nutcracker

-- by Tom Phillips

Battle scene from Balanchine's Nutcracker
When New York City Ballet and New York City Opera announced in 2008 that David H. Koch would donate 100 million dollars to renovate the New York State Theater, the opera called it a “transformative gift.” The ballet said it would “ensure the integrity of George Balanchine’s vision for the theater ..for decades to come.”  Three years later the renovation is complete.  But the opera company has left the building, now called the David H. Koch Theater, and Balanchine’s vision is in the dumpster.  Lincoln Center, conceived as a place where high culture would be available to the masses, is becoming just another exclusive haunt for the One Percent.   

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Prisoner of Hope

On Thursday night, December 1, 2011, I joined several hundred people in occupying Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.  The Occupy Wall Street movement – evicted from Zuccotti Park and now wandering the streets looking for places to protest -- called a general assembly for 10:30 on the Lincoln Center Plaza, right after the performance of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha” at the Met.  The composer had suggested the meeting and was to speak to the crowd.  

I showed up a little before ten, hoping to get the lay of the land before the action began.  When I arrived, police were setting up barricades at the foot of the stairs on the east side of the plaza, obviously planning to keep protesters away from the central area around the fountain.  I slipped in as they were setting up the last of the barricades, and eventually found a handful of other protesters conferring on the plaza near the Met.   One had a cart full of the latest Occupied Wall Street Journal.   Three of us wound up handing out the paper to opera-goers as they poured out of the Met, and directing them to the barricades where Glass was to speak.  It took me back to my days as a newsboy in the 1950s.   “Get your Occupied Wall Street Journal heah,” I bawled, “Latest Tissue!”   Within minutes, all my papers were gone.  (It was a friendly crowd, fans of Glass’s opera about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and many of them were eager to go over and join the people at the barricade.)  

By the time I got there, Glass had already spoken and the General Assembly was underway.  Several hundred people were bunched now on both sides of the barricade, with a line of cops in between.   A couple of scuffles broke out, provoking angry shouts from the crowd, but the organizers succeeded in bringing the focus back to the speakers, broadcasting their messages over the famous human microphone.  To me, the most touching speeches were from young artists – a Juilliard student, an unemployed dancer, a chorus member from the New York City Opera who had just been fired.  They were close to tears at the sight of the barricades, set up to keep them out of the very place where they had studied and performed.    

Lincoln Center was conceived in the 1960s as a place where high culture would be available to the masses.   I have spent a large part of my life there, as a sometime dance critic, a music-lover, a father of two dancers, and a midtown worker who loved to take lunch next to the tranquil pool around Henry Moore’s sculptures.  But now I am a protester, against an arts center that has gone relentlessly upscale, and cares more about revenue than beauty.   The last straw fell the day before, when I went to buy tickets for a family excursion to New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker.  This has been a family tradition for decades, made possible by the popular prices that were part of the mission of the New York State Theater.   But the New York State Theater is now the David H. Koch Theater, renovated with a gift from the billionaire right-wing financier.  And a seat in the third ring now costs $112.

What is to be done?   I was happy to be a newsboy outside the Met, and a broadcaster for the human microphone.  But I have been a journalist and critic for all of my adult life, and I feel I must use whatever talent I have to fight a battle that will be long, and difficult, and unsure of success.  And so this blog.   

When I got home after midnight from Lincoln Center, I took a look at the Occupied Wall Street Journal.  The lead article is by Cornel West, headlined “A Love Supreme,” a title from John Coltrane.  It concludes with a call for a revolution, which I will take as my conclusion.  

West writes:  “Revolution may scare some people because of its connotation of violence…  but the revolution in our time – against oligarchy and plutocracy – need not be an ugly and violent one.  The rich legacies of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, and recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, have taught us that we can deal with our social catastrophes with compassion and that we can transform unjust societies with courageous visions and nonviolent strategies.  If we equip ourselves with truthful systemic analyses of power in our minds, moral commitments of steel in our backs and a genuine joy in serving others in our hearts, then our dream of justice spread across the globe may be no mere illusion.  

“We are prisoners of a blood-stained, tear-soaked hope.  This means we are free to imagine and create a more deeply democratic world than we have yet witnessed in history.” 


As for Philip Glass (and Lou Reed)  I did catch their comments later on Youtube.   Check it out at

-- Tom Phillips