Sexy photos can’t fix the woes of New York City Ballet

Seven months ago, the New York City Ballet launched a major marketing campaign designed to attract a new audience. Subway and outdoor advertising featured the company’s dancers in their everyday clothes – well almost all them in their outdoor clothes. One wore a nude coloured bustier and another displayed a perfectly toned bare midriff and leg.
The campaign was under the direction of the company’s new executive director, Katherine E. Brown, who came on board in December 2009 to oversee all non-artistic matters at NYCB, including fund raising, finance, marketing, media and education.
Previously chief operating officer of WNYC Radio, Brown had worked at NYCB from 1988 to 1993 as a development executive.
At the time, the press reported that the ballet company was struggling with the consequences of aging audiences and tepid ticket sales.
When the ad campaign began in September 2010, Brown said “we’re trying to project the personal and the human side of these really exceptional artists. It was deliberate to have them not in the traditional tutu-and-tiara look, but more in their own rehearsal clothes”. (Rehearsal clothes include bustiers?)
The aim, the press explained, was to portray “a relaxed, casually sexy aesthetic that represents a radical image overhaul for the company, part of its most significant effort yet to appeal to the younger New Yorkers it hopes will become future patrons”.
The campaign photos were shot Henry Leutwyler whose website tells us that his “meticulous eye for nuanced detail has revealed the unspoken interiors of such figures as Michelle Obama, Karl Rove, Julia Roberts, Tom Wolfe, Cate Blanchett, Beyonce Knowles, Nathan Lane, Rhianna, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee”.
(These days, dance companies are turning more and more to fashion photographers and fashionable portrait photographers for their campaigns, so much so that the idea of a photographer specialising in dance seems passé.)
So how have things worked out at NYCB? Not so well, it seems.
This month the company has called in a mediator (Joel Schaffer, of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service), to oversee talks between the dancers and the company over their salary negotiations. The dancers want a 3 per cent salary increase for the year beginning in August and retroactively for the current year.
The company is offering a 1.5 per cent increase for 2011-12 and a pay freeze for the current year, although Brown said about a quarter of the company would still receive salary increases because of a contractual seniority schedule.
The New York Times reported yesterday that the NYCB is facing a $US6 million deficit on an operating budget of $US62 million, due to a drop in repeat attendance and flat fund-raising.
Brown told the paper that the company’s policies regarding dancers had been “very generous” and often more than the industry standard.
“There are certain things that have been givens for so many years that we simply cannot afford anymore,” she said. “We need to take a responsible approach to the organisation so we can be viable and vibrant and around.”
The company hoped to break even in the next four to five years through audience growth, increased fund-raising and expense reductions. “Right now our focus is on getting our financial house in order,” she said.
The dancers, however, said the company is responsible for its own financial problems.
“They’re chasing a bygone subscription model and doing a poor job of bringing the audience into the theatre,” said Devin Alberda, a member of the company’s corps de ballet who serves on the dancers’ six-member negotiating committee. “We’re not addressing some of the more troubling marketing or artistic decisions that are being made. We’re not sure why the first place they would come to slash the budget would be the artists.”
I guess that means there won’t be too many photo shoots featuring underwear in the near future. Not the right moment.

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New York City Ballet ad campaign, September 2010

NYCB campaign, a shrug and a very well toned body