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At 75, NYC Ballet is getting older. Its audience is skewing younger, and that's the plan

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At 75, NYC Ballet is getting older. Its audience is skewing younger, and that's the plan
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At 75, NYC Ballet is getting older. Its audience is skewing younger, and that's the plan

2024-05-24 12:58 Last Updated At:13:00

NEW YORK (AP) — Alice McDermott settled into her seat at New York City Ballet on a recent Friday night, excited to see her first-ever ballet performance. The 31-year-old Manhattanite, who works in recruiting, was on a fun girls' night out with three friends she’d met through work, starting with dinner.

“They told me I’d love the ballet,” says McDermott, who was also excited to realize she was already familiar with one of the evening’s performers, Tiler Peck, via the dancer’s popular Instagram feed. “They said you can put on a nice dress and just immerse yourself in another world, whilst marveling at what the human body can achieve.”

Seems they were right: At the end of the evening, McDermott, a new fan, went home and watched a ballet documentary.

Perhaps you could call it “Ballet and the City”? Whatever the term for McDermott’s ballet evening with pals, the scenario would surely be music to the ears of the company — which has been celebrating its 75th birthday with fanfare this year — and especially its artistic leaders of the past five years, Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan.

The two, both former dancers at the storied troupe founded by George Balanchine, have made it a key goal to bring in a younger audience to ensure the company's long-term health — and more broadly, to guard the vitality of a centuries-old art form.

It seems to be working. Though some initiatives have been in place for longer, the last five years have seen a marked shift, according to numbers provided to the Associated Press: In 2023, 53% of ticket buyers were under age 50, and people in their 30s made up the largest age segment by decade. Five years earlier, in 2018, 41% of ticket buyers were under 50, and people in their 60s made up the largest age segment.

Now, longtime ballet followers note that on a bustling Friday evening you can look down from the first ring of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center and not simply see, well, a sea of gray.

A major factor in attracting younger people, especially those under 30, has been affordable pricing. There are also evenings targeting young professionals, including post-show receptions. And there have been collaborations with visual or musical artists with youthful followings — like the musician Solange, who in 2022 was commissioned to score a ballet by 23-year old choreographer Gianna Reisen.

The Solange collaboration was a significant moment, Whelan and Stafford said in a recent interview, surveying the past five years as the thumping of leaping dancers’ feet echoed through the ceiling above Stafford's office.

“We sold out every show,” Whelan noted. “It was a little nugget, but it was memorable.”

Perhaps even more important was the fact, says Stafford, that about 70% of those ticket buyers were new to the company — contributing to “a generation of young professionals in the city that are at our theater every night now.”

Katherine Brown, the ballet’s executive director, said the company had taken a look at the theater and vastly reduced the price of certain seats — and saw them fill up. She also noted the 30-for-30 program, where members under 30 can buy any seat in the house for $30. “That thing has just exploded,” Brown says, from some 1,800 members in the last full season before the pandemic-forced shutdown, to some 14,000 now.

One can’t discount the “pure economics” of an evening at the ballet, especially for young people, says Wendy Perron, longtime dance writer and former editor of Dance Magazine. “When I was in New York in the ’70s and ‘80s, I just couldn’t afford to go to the ballet," she says.

Also not to be discounted: the effect of social media in promoting dancers as people with personalities.

“We’ve got this crop of really exciting but also relatable, approachable dancers, and through social media, audiences can connect to them in a way they couldn’t back when we were dancing,” says Stafford, who retired as a dancer in 2014.

Consider Peck, one of the company’s most popular ballerinas (and a rising choreographer), whose Instagram feed had reached McDermott before she ever saw her dance. Peck supplies her half-million followers with short, punchy videos about everything from her 10 favorite dance roles to how she applies stage makeup. Her videos often feature her partner onstage and off, rising principal dancer Roman Mejia.

It’s all very different from a time when — like Odette in “Swan Lake” — ballerinas used to be mysterious and, above all, silent.

Social media — whether used by the company or via the dancers’ own feeds — can also answer questions. If you attended a performance of “The Nutcracker” a few seasons ago, you might have wondered why dancer Mira Nadon, as Sugarplum Fairy, suddenly disappeared from the stage at a key moment. The answer was on her Instagram later: Her pointe shoe had slipped off.

“See, you can get all your answers from Instagram now,” quips Whelan, who herself has an active feed.

A few months ago, Whelan, a much-loved former NYCB principal who also retired in 2014, got a congratulatory text from Stafford in the morning — it had been exactly five years since the two had taken the helm after a turbulent period when #MeToo accusations caused scandal.

Historically, the company had been led by one man — Balanchine until 1983, then Peter Martins. This time, the board tried something new: a duet. Stafford was already interim head, and Whelan had applied for the job.

“They put us in a room and closed the door, and we were like – ‘Hi?’” Whelan says. “They were like, figure it out! And we did.” Stafford, the artistic director, serves as a bridge between the creative and business sides. Whelan, associate artistic director, focuses on the delicate task of programming.

Company insiders describe a mood different from the days when one outsized, all-powerful personality ruled from above. For one thing, the pair says they've instituted annual taking-stock conversations with each dancer.

Diversity — ballet is slowly changing but still overwhelmingly white — is also a priority, they say, and that includes diversifying “the pipeline,” meaning students at the affiliated School of American Ballet.

Recently, the company heralded its first two Black dancers to dance Dewdrop, the second most important female “Nutcracker” role: India Bradley and guest artist Alexandra Hutchinson of the Dance Theater of Harlem. Yet to come is a Black Sugarplum Fairy. The company says 26% of of its dancers identify as people of color, whereas 10 years ago that figure was 13%. Stafford and Whelan have commissioned 12 ballets by choreographers of color in the last six years, it says.

“We know where the gaps are, and we take it seriously,” Whelan says.

She and Stafford say they're also paying more attention to wellness, be it physical training to avoid injury, healthy diets, or a more frank discussion of mental health.

As for the company's financial health, it is strong, Brown says, four years after the pandemic cost tens of millions in losses The 2024 budget is roughly $102 million, compared to $88 million in 2019. Audience capacity has exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

As for new fan McDermott, she's planning more visits, along with her friends.

“I think we have a new tradition between the four of us,” she says. “We’ll definitely be making it a bit of a thing.”

FILE - Ballet dancer Tiler Peck attends the New York City Ballet Spring Gala at the David H. Koch Theater on Thursday, May 2, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)

FILE - Ballet dancer Tiler Peck attends the New York City Ballet Spring Gala at the David H. Koch Theater on Thursday, May 2, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)

New York City Ballet's associate artistic director Wendy Whelan poses inside the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

New York City Ballet's associate artistic director Wendy Whelan poses inside the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

New York City Ballet's artistic director Jonathan Stafford poses inside the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

New York City Ballet's artistic director Jonathan Stafford poses inside the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

New York City Ballet's artistic director Jonathan Stafford, right, and associate artistic director Wendy Whelan pose inside the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

New York City Ballet's artistic director Jonathan Stafford, right, and associate artistic director Wendy Whelan pose inside the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Ukraine is set to officially launch membership talks with the European Union on Tuesday in what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described as a dream come true for his country’s citizens more than two years into a war with Russia.

Deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration Olga Stefanishyna will lead Ukraine’s delegation at an intergovernmental conference in Luxembourg marking the official opening of talks to align the country's laws and standards with those of the 27-nation bloc.

A few hours later, Moldova, which applied to join the EU after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and was granted candidate status four months later, will take part in a separate intergovernmental conference to officially launch its own accession process.

Ukraine, too, sought candidate status in the days after Russia invaded. By June 2022, EU leaders had quickly made it official. But things have moved more slowly since then and membership, if it comes, might be years away.

Turkey’s accession talks have lasted almost two decades without result.

Still, starting the talks process is sending another strong signal of solidarity with Ukraine beyond the billions in financial support the EU has provided. It’s also a show of support for Moldova, which has faced its own challenges with Russia.

“Generations of our people are realizing their European dream. Ukraine is returning to Europe,” Zelenskyy said in an online post after EU member states agreed on Friday to open the talks.

Tuesday’s intergovernmental conference marks the launch of talks but the negotiations themselves are unlikely to begin for a few months.

Candidate countries must bring their laws and standards into line with those of the EU in 35 policy areas, known as chapters, ranging from the free movement of goods through fisheries, taxation, energy and the environment to judicial rights and security.

Unanimous agreement must be given by all 27 member countries to open or close chapters, providing ample opportunity for EU nations to demand more work or to delay proceedings.

Hungary, which takes over the EU’s rotating presidency from Belgium in July, has routinely put the brakes on EU and NATO support for Ukraine.

“We are still at the beginning of the screening process. It’s very difficult to say at what stage Ukraine is in. From what I see here, as we speak, they are very far from meeting the accession criteria,” Hungarian Minister for European Affairs Janos Boka said as he arrived at the venue.

Bordering EU members Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, Ukraine would overtake France to become the largest member of the bloc if it joined, shifting its center of gravity further eastward. As a top grain producer its entry would have a huge impact on EU agriculture policy.

Together with Moldova, Ukraine stands in a long line of EU hopefuls — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey — with yearslong membership aspirations and which have felt left behind by Kyiv’s rapid progress.

Spanish State Secretary for European Affairs Fernando Sampedro Marcos praised both countries for their preparatory work, saying they have made “a tremendous effort in very difficult circumstances in the last months.”

“Of course, this requires reforms and it’s a merit-based process,” he noted, and paid tribute to the countries of the Western Balkans which also want to join. “We will not leave them behind.”

Ukraine wants to join by 2030, but it must carry out dozens of institutional and legal reforms first. That daunting list is led by steps to combat corruption and includes broad reforms to public administration and judiciary.

FILE- Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy poses for a picture before an EU summit at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. Ukraine is set to officially launch membership talks with the European Union on Tuesday, June 25, 2024, in what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described as a dream come true for his country's citizens more than two years into a war with Russia. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

FILE- Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy poses for a picture before an EU summit at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. Ukraine is set to officially launch membership talks with the European Union on Tuesday, June 25, 2024, in what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described as a dream come true for his country's citizens more than two years into a war with Russia. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

FILE - From left, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and European Council President Charles Michel walk together to a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. Ukraine is set to officially launch membership talks with the European Union later on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Moldova will also set its accession process in motion, as the EU hosts two intergovernmental conferences in Luxembourg. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

FILE - From left, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and European Council President Charles Michel walk together to a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. Ukraine is set to officially launch membership talks with the European Union later on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Moldova will also set its accession process in motion, as the EU hosts two intergovernmental conferences in Luxembourg. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

FILE - European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, stands next to Moldova's President Maia Sandu, in Chisinau, Moldova, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. The European Union agreed Friday, June 21, 2024, to start membership negotiations with embattled Ukraine and Moldova, another step in the nations' long journey to move closer to the West and mute Russia's influence. (AP Photo/Aurel Obreja, File)

FILE - European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, stands next to Moldova's President Maia Sandu, in Chisinau, Moldova, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. The European Union agreed Friday, June 21, 2024, to start membership negotiations with embattled Ukraine and Moldova, another step in the nations' long journey to move closer to the West and mute Russia's influence. (AP Photo/Aurel Obreja, File)

FILE - President of Moldova Maia Sandu, right, speaks during a joint press conference with European Council President Charles Michel, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. The European Union agreed Friday, June 21, 2024, to start membership negotiations with embattled Ukraine and Moldova, another step in the nations' long journey to move closer to the West and mute Russia's influence. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

FILE - President of Moldova Maia Sandu, right, speaks during a joint press conference with European Council President Charles Michel, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. The European Union agreed Friday, June 21, 2024, to start membership negotiations with embattled Ukraine and Moldova, another step in the nations' long journey to move closer to the West and mute Russia's influence. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

FILE - Girls walk by a EU flag installation in a park in Chisinau, Moldova, Wednesday, May 31, 2023. Ukraine is set to officially launch membership talks with the European Union later on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Moldova will also set its accession process in motion, as the EU hosts two intergovernmental conferences in Luxembourg. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru, File)

FILE - Girls walk by a EU flag installation in a park in Chisinau, Moldova, Wednesday, May 31, 2023. Ukraine is set to officially launch membership talks with the European Union later on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Moldova will also set its accession process in motion, as the EU hosts two intergovernmental conferences in Luxembourg. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru, File)

In this image released by Moldova's President, Moldova's President Maia Sandu signs the decree on initiating Moldova's EU accession negotiations in Chisinau, Moldova, Friday, June 21, 2024. The European Union agreed Friday to start membership negotiations with embattled Ukraine and Moldova, another step in the nations' long journey to move closer to the West and mute Russia's influence. (Moldovan Presidency via AP)

In this image released by Moldova's President, Moldova's President Maia Sandu signs the decree on initiating Moldova's EU accession negotiations in Chisinau, Moldova, Friday, June 21, 2024. The European Union agreed Friday to start membership negotiations with embattled Ukraine and Moldova, another step in the nations' long journey to move closer to the West and mute Russia's influence. (Moldovan Presidency via AP)

FILE - People holding European Union and Moldovan flags fill the Great National Assembly Square in Chisinau, Moldova, Sunday, May 21, 2023, at the end of a rally called by President Maia Sandu, aiming to show the country's support for European Union accession. Ukraine is set to officially launch membership talks with the European Union later on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Moldova will also set its accession process in motion, as the EU hosts two intergovernmental conferences in Luxembourg. (AP Photo/Aurel Obreja, File)

FILE - People holding European Union and Moldovan flags fill the Great National Assembly Square in Chisinau, Moldova, Sunday, May 21, 2023, at the end of a rally called by President Maia Sandu, aiming to show the country's support for European Union accession. Ukraine is set to officially launch membership talks with the European Union later on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Moldova will also set its accession process in motion, as the EU hosts two intergovernmental conferences in Luxembourg. (AP Photo/Aurel Obreja, File)

FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, speaks during a joint press conference with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. The European Union agreed Friday, June 21, 2024, to start membership negotiations with embattled Ukraine and Moldova, another step in the nations' long journey to move closer to the West and mute Russia's influence. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, speaks during a joint press conference with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. The European Union agreed Friday, June 21, 2024, to start membership negotiations with embattled Ukraine and Moldova, another step in the nations' long journey to move closer to the West and mute Russia's influence. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

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