Topless Men in Heady Poses

Battle of the Ballet Hype Machines

This year's knock-down-drag-out fight in the advertising world has nothing to do with Nikes, Taco Bell, Viagra, Priceline.com, or minor feminine itching. It's set in the ruthless realm of . . . ballet? Well, we're not exactly talking about a nuclear decimation of Madison Avenue (or Lincoln Center), but heads havebeen turning over the opposing marketing strategies used by rivals American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet—wildly varying ways of selling tutus to the masses.

ABT, whose 60th-anniversary season runs from May 8 through July 1 at the Metropolitan Opera House, has taken a vividly sexy approach that last fall featured shirtless star Ethan Stiefel in Billy the Kid and now trots out Romeo and Juliet's Paloma Herrera and (shirtless) Angel Corella smoldering together by their death tomb. In contrast, City Ballet, playing at the New York State Theater from April 25 through June 25, is using pastoral shots of costumed ballerinas assuming elegant poses in gardens and mansions. None of them are shirtless, or even shoeless.

On a simplistic level, this is shaping up as a battle between pop and purism, between pizzazz and poise. The diversity's been good for ballet, stylishly tapping into alternately sensual and refined aspects of the medium in ways that sell. While NYCB's campaign provokes onlookers to think, "Maybe this is the kind of enriching experience my aesthetic side could use," ABT's has you dropping your Friday night lapdance in favor of some really hot pas de deux. In both cases, you want to buy a ticket.

Rodney Smith, who photographed the New York City Ballet campaign at Snedens Landing in the Palisades, among other locations, says he consciously went for high-toned imagery. "Most advertising and fashion today is trying to belittle things," he says, "to show people the vulgarity and ugliness in the world. My work is to show that there's grace and delicacy, if you look for it. Ballet represents one of the few things left where dedication is exalted. With the dancers' discipline comes incredible beauty."

Smith was initially asked to shoot NYCB's principal dancers, but eventually chose to focus on members of the corps de ballet—the youngest and least experienced of the company— which makes sense, considering the choreographers are often the stars in this troupe. "I thought they were in many ways the most graceful," he admits. "And they have smaller egos and it was easier to work with them." (Hopefully their humility is intact, despite now being featured on billboards and in New York Times ads.)

The images' artsy feel should appeal to the NYCB's core customers, who their marketing director, Linda Sadoff, says are generally female and aged 40 to 60 (though the Internet orderers are often younger). Sadoff adds that their crowd is "very high-end, very highly educated, and with good income." And obviously hotsy-totsy taste.

The audience for ABT is demographically similar—though a healthy contingent of students, young professionals, and even men go to performances, according to that company's executive director, Louis Spisto. ABT's campaign (shot by Nancy Ellison) is largely aimed at the up-and-comers, enticing them into elaborate, relatively accessible productions via romance and passion. "The ads appeal to any age group," says Spisto, "but particularly with the Romeo and Juliet one, it's designed to capture a younger, perhaps hipper, perhaps more urban audience. I don't think it's unfair to say sex is part of it," he adds, "though it's not the sole image." But names are definitely the sole subjects; in contrast to the NYCB campaign, ABT's chorus people stay in the background as star power grabs you by the wallet.

How do these competing culture machines feel about each other's efforts at hyping the hell out of dance? Smith hasn't seen the ABT campaign, though he doesn't care for most advertising in general. But Spisto concedes that NYCB's campaign is "very lovely," though he doesn't agree that it feels more classical than his. "If you look at their pictures," he says, "those aren't really classical tutus they're wearing. They're actually longer. They're more like a Balanchine skirt." Now, kids!

 
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