Is Ballet Hardwired for Touring?
By Arturo Jacobus, President & CEO, Atlanta Ballet
Ballet is quite possibly the most mobile large-scale art form in the world.
Through the decades, ballet companies such as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem have had a business model at some point in their respective histories which was built upon touring – performing sometimes more on the road than at home, and depending more on fees from touring than ticket sales for their sustainability. Other large companies, while primarily home based, include regular touring as part of their season, such as San Francisco Ballet, The Bolshoi Ballet, and The Mariinsky Ballet.
The reasons for this phenomenon are many, and one of them is surely tradition. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, between 1909 and 1929, not only revolutionized and popularized the art of ballet through innovation and collaboration with some of the greatest artists of the time, such as Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Matisse, Picasso, Chanel, and Balanchine, but it toured extensively throughout Europe and North and South America. Diaghilev single-handedly brought ballet to the masses in regions of the world that had never before seen a ballet performance.
In 1956, Robert Joffrey toured around the United States in a station wagon with six dancers who were called the Robert Joffrey Studio Dancers. Later they performed in India, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. From that small touring ensemble the Joffrey Ballet was later formed and was based in New York until 1995 when the company moved to Chicago. For most of their New York based years, they toured extensively – often performing more away than at home. This deep-rooted tradition has since found its way into the DNA of ballet dancers and companies around the world.
A second, more practical reason some companies toured was to pursue a strategy designed to overcome the “prophet in his own land” syndrome. For many decades American ballet companies have been the “third sister” of the performing arts in most cities in which they are based, behind the opera and the symphony. As companies like San Francisco Ballet grew in artistic stature and budget, eventually equaling the opera and symphony, they still lacked the long-standing cache of those more established organizations in their home town. Only through an aggressive touring initiative, garnering accolades from the great dance capitals of the world, was San Francisco Ballet able to break through those local biases, resulting in greater ticket sales and contributions at home because of the reputation they had built abroad.
Here are some additional ideas that might contribute to an understanding of why ballet dancers and companies tour so much:
- Many companies have short home seasons because they share their theaters with other organizations and visiting shows and cannot get enough dates to expand their performances.
- Dancers have short careers and the desire to dance as much as they can to as many audiences as possible in that limited time is important.
- Ballet companies are more flexible in the scope and complexity of their repertoire and are able to scale programs to the needs of the tour, including the number of dancers employed.
- Dancers may be more willing to tour, given their youth. The physical requirements of touring coupled with a lesser degree of strong ties and obligations at home might render them more able and free when compared to other performing arts.
Finally, as Gennadi Nedvigin recently said, in a discussion of the ballet touring phenomenon, “I always felt I danced better on tour”. The reason he gave was that the excitement of a new theater and a new audience was exhilarating, and it always felt like he was dancing at a higher level because of it.