Online Content and Digital Seasons
When COVID-19 hit, it seemed everything moved online that could, from galas to company class. In a recent online panel, American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie said the company’s May online gala, which did not include much dancing, was well-received but not a financial success. The Washington Ballet’s gala centered on livestreamed performances and was financially successful. But afterwards, artistic director Julie Kent, a company dancer and a gala chairwoman became ill with COVID-19, despite social distancing and other safety precautions.
Can online platforms be a safe, longer-term source of income and artistic outlet for ballet companies?
Marc Kirschner, a founder of the paid performing arts streaming service Marquee TV, says this moment is a line in the sand for companies’ survival.
“Whether or not companies can figure out how to incorporate digital into their strategy is going to decide which will fold,” says Kirschner. “Linking digital programming to data, marketing and operations is a long-term necessity. COVID has only made this more clear.”
He says that rather than put up old footage with rudimentary filming, companies can use this moment to make high-quality captures of live contemporary works. “No one needs to film another Swan Lake. Dance companies need to focus on what makes them different,” he says. “New works are in demand on Marquee TV, and those can be made with smaller casts and filmed in front of a house with 20 percent capacity.”
Kirschner acknowledges that filming can be prohibitively expensive, but stresses that an innovative digital strategy is key for companies to develop and keep audiences now and in the future—and that it’s a mistake for companies to give content away for free.
Louisville Ballet dancers Mark Krieger and Natalia Ashikhmina
Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet
Louisville Ballet is trying a paid approach, with a 2020–21 digital season subscription starting at $125. Artistic director Robert Curran is planning a series of dance-art films, works created specifically for digital, rather than presenting filmed live performances. He’s betting that this will expand the company’s artistic horizon in a way that can carry it through the pandemic.
“I’ve wanted to explore this for some time, but we were never able to with all of our other programming,” says Curran. “We hope this will not only engage our subscribers but show the dance world that Louisville is a place where new ideas about ballet are happening.”
Funding this digital season is still something Curran is figuring out, and he’s unsure how much work will be produced. He’s also planning to keep dancers in small pods in hopes of preventing the spread of the virus, but acknowledges illness could derail his plans, as keeping dancers safe is the main priority.
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