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SPAC must make the ballet season pop
By PAUL BRAY First published: Sunday, September 9, 2007
Ballet is dead, long live ballet, or so I thought after reading about Bard College in Monocle magazine.
Bard, located about 50 miles south of Albany, is a "cultural powerhouse" and "ready to pop." Bard President Leon Botstein "believes that classical music is an endangered species," but he still "wants it presented in a way that audiences can relate to."
This summer I despaired at the number of empty seats at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (a 10 percent decrease in attendance from the previous year) for the dazzling performances of the New York City Ballet. Presenters of ballet and other classical arts face challenging times with declining audiences. But as Botstein at Bard demonstrates, challenges can be surmounted. SPAC should and can be a cultural powerhouse. It especially should pop during the three weeks of ballet in July.
The City Ballet is about excellence wrapped in the beauty of artfully choreographed movement and music. SPAC and our region should also be about excellence. For three weeks each year, we and visitors from around the world should fill the theater and lawn for each performance of the finest in ballet.
Here are three ways to make SPAC pop in July: better packaging, better understanding of how to attract an audience; and getting our economic developers to understand that it is all about excellence.
Begin by making the ballet's residency the center piece of the Saratoga Dance Festival to be as world renown as festivals in Edinburgh, Spoleto and Salzburg. The City Ballet is world class. In July, whoever thinks about ballet should think Saratoga.
Potential partners like Skidmore, the Dance Museum and regional performing arts venues should be enlisted to coordinate efforts and offer dance and other related performances to complement the main stage. Some hoopla in the state park and on Broadway in Saratoga Springs could add to the festive atmosphere. Make it festive and Saratoga becomes a New York state showcase and the dance place to be in July.
SPAC's board needs to address the price consciousness of local residents. That price consciousness is part of the local culture and it is not related to how much money there is locally to spend on the ballet. The richest people I've known have been tight wads. They need to know that they are getting value for the money they spend. They like to think they are getting a bargain even when they are not.
It is more important to fill all the seats than to despair that something is being given away too cheaply. Smart venues play price sensitivity like a virtuoso plays a violin with freebies and bargains, building an audience that still ends up paying its share.
Finally, the ballet must be recognized as a symbol of excellence. Excellence is what being a successful player in the high-tech economy is about. Arts and excellence attracts the "creative class" that drives tech economies, but its positive effect is deeper than that. Cities and regions like New York City, Chicago and San Francisco thrive because excellence in sports, arts, food, urban life and architecture is expected.
Having the City Ballet here each summer makes the statement that we value and can attract excellence. A performance in a half empty theater sends the message that we are bush league, that we do not know excellence or are unwilling to support it.
We should ask this question: What are our chambers of commerce and economic growth promoters doing to highlight the ballet and show the world that this region values excellence?
They are not doing as much as they should and could. We need to keep our economic developers feet to the fire when it comes to doing more than just being Tech Valley cheerleaders to attract the businesses they want. They need to lead when it comes to making this region the best it can be in all things. If we are attractive in the arts, environment, urban life and education, tech development will happen.
Ballet as performed by the New York City Ballet is not just for gray heads. Dance has been an element of civilization since civilizations began. Responding to it is very much ingrained in all of us: young, middle age and elderly.
Instead of wringing his hands over a decline in classical arts, Botstein at Bard is taking chances investing in world class architecture and arts, and making things happen. Let us hope the leaders in our region can follow in those foot steps.
Paul M. Bray is founding president of the Albany Roundtable, a civic lunch forum. His e-mail address is Secsunday@aol.com.
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