Positioning Ballet: Accessible to Who?

This is part 2 of a series inspired by the ‘Positioning Ballet’ Working Conference, hosted by the Dutch National Ballet, February 16 and 17.

March 02, 2019


In 1964, Britain’s Royal Ballet established ‘Ballet for All’ under the direction of Peter Brinson. Between 1964 and 1979, this small company of six dancers, two pianists, and two actor-narrators toured towns and villages across England, presenting around 150 performances per annum and reaching around 70,000 people each year. In 1976, the Royal Opera House established its schools’ matinee programme – however, this relied on schools having the budget to take groups to the theatre (and the ability to travel to London). Where has accessible ballet gone? And how can ballet return to the people?

In the internet age, digital media and cinema screenings are crucial in the democratic dissemination of ballet: companies not only need to think about getting people into theatres – for which there are various geographic and economic restrictions – but taking ballet to people who would otherwise not seek it out for themselves. Ballet may position itself as an elite art at the top of the cultural and dance pyramids, but if it’s not attracting young audiences beyond the barre-lined walls of dance schools, the future of ballet as both an institution and art will be in jeopardy.

More effort needs to be taken in attracting diverse audiences in general, though this necessitates long-scale planning and collaboration with other cultural organizations, charities, and schools. In the meantime, there should be a greater drive to attract those audiences who are most likely to be drawn to ballet but are otherwise put off: the cultural swing-voters, if you will. Students of literature, drama and film; artists, actors, and athletes. These disciplines all intersect with the dance world, but ballet’s artistic gentrification presents an inhospitable atmosphere towards the outside.

“If ballet is to attract more diverse audiences, this issue of illiteracies needs to be urgently addressed. If you do not understand a work, it is unlikely that you will return.”

The Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works attracted many first-time ballet-goers who were drawn to the performance due to the work’s inspiration by Virginia Woolf. This helped to bring ballet to those interested in literature – people who might have otherwise overlooked ballet, being unable to ‘read’ its specific dance language. Once these virgin audiences are in the theaters, and realize they can understand (and enjoy) ballet, they are more likely to return. However, companies need to be aware that not all audience members possess the specific cultural literacy ballets often require, meaning some works are not fully comprehensible to those without dance training. 

If ballet is to attract more diverse audiences, this issue of illiteracies needs to be urgently addressed. If you do not understand a work, it is unlikely that you will return. If you feel from the outset that a performance is not for you, you are unlikely to sit through it. And as a parent from outside the dance world, you are less likely to enroll your child in dance lessons if you feel that the institution of ballet is inherently hostile to your identity.

Why is football (in terms of race and class, if not gender) more diverse than ballet? In part, due to the mass-scale of its media coverage, and because people from many races and classes can see themselves reflected in the community. They, therefore, feel more able to pursue a career in it, a base level of acceptance having been pre-established. Having school programs is all very well, but the ballet world needs to get parents of underrepresented demographics into theaters. The Royal Ballet’s ‘Ballet for All’ programme, though short-lived, was a relatively radical initiative in the democratization of ballet. In taking a small touring company to communities without a significant arts scene, it made ballet accessible through exposure.

During a panel discussion at the ‘Positioning Ballet’ conference, Dutch National Ballet corps de ballet dancer, Wendeline Wijkstra, argued that new ideas and works needed to originate from the inside of the company, rather than being dictated by the audience’s preferences and tastes. While there is a case for a company being able to have the artistic freedom and confidence to present more experimental works beyond the repertory money-spinners, Wijkstra’s comment presents ballet as a closed-circuit system. This positions the external ‘audience’ as a homogenous group.

Ballet’s audiences may not reflect the full spectrum of society (yet), but this does not mean that they are a uniform entity. Accessibility, representation, and diversity are tributaries of a common river – and if audiences begin to reflect the diversity of society across age, gender, class and race divisions, then imagine what dancers and audiences alike might be inspired to create.




Interested in more? Read other parts of this series by clicking on the options below.

Rebecca Took is a Masters’ Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.

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