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'Black Swan' Helps Sell Seats for 'Swan Lake'

Monday, February 21, 2011

Next Sunday, the psychological ballet thriller "Black Swan" will contend for Best Picture at the Oscar awards ceremony. But the runaway success of the film has had another unintended consequence: bringing classical dance into the pop culture spotlight.

The New York City Ballet is currently in the middle of a two-week run of Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake." The piece is one of the most easily recognizably and beloved ballets in the canon, and is always one of the season's best sellers. City Ballet spokesman Rob Daniels says that this year, tickets sold extremely quickly. The company has already sold out tickets to all nine of its performances in the 2,500-seat David A. Koch Theater.

But does the ballet's success have something to do with "Black Swan"? City Ballet says its programming of "Swan Lake" was set in stone well before the mania around the film, which stars Natalie Portman as a ballerina hoping to nab the role of the swan, took off. "Swan Lake" is the ballet featured in "Black Swan." Portman's role is a challenging one that is danced by principal dancer Sara Mearns in the current City Ballet staging.

"I think more people are aware now of how hard it is to be a ballet dancer," says Wall Street Journal arts columnist Pia Catton, who attended a packed "Swan Lake" performance on opening night. "People used to ask me questions like 'How old are the dancers?' or 'How much money do they make?'" Catton says. "But this film opened up new questions because it showed the incredible amount of self-sacrifice you have to make for the art form."

Catton points out that, in addition to "Black Swan," Jennifer Homans' book chronicling ballet history "Apollo's Angels" was published. That only contributed to the hype.

Although there's no way to accurately gauge the effects of the film on City Ballet ticket sales until the season is over and the numbers are in, the early signs are encouraging.

"I think what ballet companies need to do now is recognize that there is an audience that is beyond their typical audience and work on ways to reach it," says Catton. "I heard from a couple of people that customers have called City Ballet and asked 'When is Natalie Portman dancing?' Obviously, Natalie Portman is not dancing. But the fact that people have misconstrued this suggests that the marketing effort to get the City Ballet dancers out there more and better-known is an effort that we need to see more of."

Last season, the nation's largest dance groups (the New York City Ballet included) had an average attendance of 73 percent, according to Dance/USA, an organization that compiles research data on dance companies throughout the country.

"Swan Lake" runs through Saturday, February 26.

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