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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)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Yet another wave of severe storms pummeled a wide swath of the United States and Canada, causing flash floods that required rescues Wednesday in Arkansas, dropping a tornado that blew a B-52 bomber off its base in New York, and stranding drivers in high water around Toronto.

The relentless series of storms has caused deaths or damage from the Plains to New England this week. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost power and air conditioning during days of sweltering heat.

As much as 11 inches (nearly 28 centimeters) of rain fell overnight into Wednesday on parts of Marion County, Arkansas, in the Ozark Mountains, the National Weather Service said.

At least 80 people had to evacuate a nursing home in Yellville, the county seat, and were taken to a community center, said Lacey Kanipe, a spokesperson for Arkansas emergency management. A section of a bridge washed out, and a historic courthouse flooded.

As many as 40 residents had to evacuate their homes in the Marion County city of Flippin, Kanipe said, and there was also a swift-water rescue involving a recreational vehicle in neighboring Baxter County.

There have been “impacts to infrastructure” in the area, said Kanipe, who didn't have details. There were no immediate reports of injuries from the flooding.

Cities across upstate New York declared states of emergency after a storm swept through Tuesday with high winds and spectacular lightning. A confirmed tornado in the city of Rome tipped over vehicles and left streets clogged with tree debris, power poles and electrical transformers.

The winds were fierce enough to knock a tourist attraction, a B-52 bomber, off its pedestal at Griffiss Business and Technology Park. Steeples crumbled and roofs were torn apart at First Presbyterian Church and St. Mary’s Church, both built in the 1800s. St. Mary’s is not an active church and is privately owned.

“These are beautiful old churches. It breaks my heart,” Rome resident Barb Mulvey said on Facebook.

A Rome landmark, a mural of a Revolutionary War figure on horseback, was destroyed, along with the building on which it was painted. All that remained was an image of a horse hoof.

Storm debris hit and killed an 82-year-old man who was outdoors in Canastota in central New York, village administrator Jeremy Ryan said.

Trees fell on houses and cars Tuesday in Keene, New Hampshire, forcing some residents to evacuate. Around Toronto, flooding temporarily closed several major roads and left drivers stranded, the Canadian Press reported.

About 200,000 homes and businesses lacked power Wednesday in northeastern U.S. states, according to PowerOutage.us. The East Coast from Maine to the Carolinas was warned of weather that could feel hotter than 100 degrees (37.8 Celsius) in some places.

A storm helped bring under control a forest fire burning at a military bombing range in New Jersey as it dropped half an inch of rain, the state forest fire service said.

This week's severe weather struck the Chicago area especially hard. The weather service said it confirmed 17 tornadoes hit northern Illinois and northwestern Indiana, including 11 during a single stretch of extraordinary storms Monday night.

Utilities continued to restore power in the Midwest, where more than 100,000 homes and businesses in Illinois and Indiana still didn’t have electricity, according to PowerOutage.us.

Across the U.S., the storms have led to at least five deaths, including the one in New York. Flooding killed an 88-year-old couple who were in their car near Elsah, Illinois, on Tuesday and a 76-year-old passenger in a pickup in Rockford, Illinois, on Sunday. A fallen tree killed a 44-year-old woman in Cedar Lake, Indiana, on Monday.

Associated Press writers Karen Matthews in New York and Nick Perry in Boston contributed to this report.

Cars are partially submerged in flood waters in the Don Valley following heavy rain in Toronto, on Tuesday, July 16 2024. (Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press via AP)

Cars are partially submerged in flood waters in the Don Valley following heavy rain in Toronto, on Tuesday, July 16 2024. (Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press via AP)

A person walks through the Union Station during a flood following heavy rain in Toronto, on Tuesday, July 16 2024. (Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press via AP)

A person walks through the Union Station during a flood following heavy rain in Toronto, on Tuesday, July 16 2024. (Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press via AP)

Ezra Solomon, 8, helps clear the road of debris near the intersection of West Huron and North Leavitt Street in West Town, Tuesday, July 16, 2024, after severe storms passed through the Chicago area the night before. (Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Ezra Solomon, 8, helps clear the road of debris near the intersection of West Huron and North Leavitt Street in West Town, Tuesday, July 16, 2024, after severe storms passed through the Chicago area the night before. (Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Water and mud coat the floor of Jami Lane's home in Nashville, Ill., after a nearby creek flooded on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. Lane said the floodwaters reached three feet deep on the main floor of the home, and had never previously entered the house in her roughly 20 years of living there. (Ben Gray/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

Water and mud coat the floor of Jami Lane's home in Nashville, Ill., after a nearby creek flooded on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. Lane said the floodwaters reached three feet deep on the main floor of the home, and had never previously entered the house in her roughly 20 years of living there. (Ben Gray/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

Fallen trees cover a vehicle following after a storm that hit Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H., on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Fallen trees cover a vehicle following after a storm that hit Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H., on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Jon Scott, a resident of Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H., looks at the damage to his home after a power storm came through the area on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Jon Scott, a resident of Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H., looks at the damage to his home after a power storm came through the area on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

City crews clean up debris on Lake Shore Blvd., after heavy rain caused flooding, in Toronto, on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

City crews clean up debris on Lake Shore Blvd., after heavy rain caused flooding, in Toronto, on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

Cars remain stranded on the Don Valley Parkway as water recedes following heavy rain that caused flooding in Toronto on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

Cars remain stranded on the Don Valley Parkway as water recedes following heavy rain that caused flooding in Toronto on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

Cars remain stranded on Bayview Avenue as water recedes following heavy rain that caused flooding in Toronto on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

Cars remain stranded on Bayview Avenue as water recedes following heavy rain that caused flooding in Toronto on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

Jon Scott, a resident of Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H., looks at the damage to his home after a power storm came through the area on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Jon Scott, a resident of Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H., looks at the damage to his home after a power storm came through the area on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Fallen trees are scattered following after a storm that hit Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H., on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Fallen trees are scattered following after a storm that hit Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H., on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

A giant tree blocks the road on Maple Avenue near the Keene, N.H., Middle School after a powerful storm on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

A giant tree blocks the road on Maple Avenue near the Keene, N.H., Middle School after a powerful storm on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Fallen trees are scattered following after a storm that hit Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H.,on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Fallen trees are scattered following after a storm that hit Tanglewood Estates in Keene, N.H.,on Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Cars are partially submerged in floodwaters in the Don Valley following heavy rain in Toronto, Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press via AP)

Cars are partially submerged in floodwaters in the Don Valley following heavy rain in Toronto, Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press via AP)

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