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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 habitués 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