Earlier this spring, AOL subscribers found themselves greeted by much more than the familiar lilt of "You've got mail!" when they logged in, as the company began introducing its new slate of original video programming on the AOL On Network, AOL's premium video platform. Alongside programs focusing on sports, style, and entertainment, one of the centerpieces is the docudrama city.ballet., which will offer an exclusive inside look at the celebrated dancers of New York City Ballet when it premieres later this fall.
The twelve-episode series, conceived by executive producer and NYCB board member Sarah Jessica Parker and produced by Pretty Matches Productions and Zero Point Zero Production, is very emphatically not a reality show. "We're not hoping to create drama where there is none," Parker emphasizes. "We're not looking to create a portrait of hysterical divas."
Fittingly, city.ballet. focuses on the internal dramas and struggles that come along with any act of artistic creation, rather than the infighting and competition that are such a trope in other depictions of the dance world. "We're looking to photograph an intellectual and physical endeavor," says Parker, "and I think that's a different animal than reality television, which is about grabbing a story quickly and creating drama in an attempt to be provocative and create chatter."
The series also stands apart from other reality shows through its honest tone and gritty, natural visuals, which are more reminiscent of an independent documentary than the typical hour-long drama. Alison Benson, Parker's partner at Pretty Matches Productions, explains that this raw, contemporary aesthetic was absolutely intentional, representing a direct contrast to both television and traditional ballet documentaries. "We're used to seeing the stock performance footage, and it's gorgeous in a way, but for 40 years it's looked the same," she says. "You want to play against type and show something in a light that it hasn't been shown in before."
The emphasis on the creative process rather than outsize personalities is exactly what has made NYCB's dancers themselves such enthusiastic fans of the project, which was filmed over several weeks in September as the company prepared for its Fall Season. "As a dancer, at first, I didn't want anyone to see behind the scenes. But I realized that I consume everything that I can find about performers and the process and the behind-the-scenes work of other art forms," says principal dancer Jared Angle. "It doesn't ruin the magic of being in the theater for me when I know what happens behind the scenes. It actually enhances it."
Parker says that she brought the concept of the series to NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins after giving serious thought to how she could best contribute to the Company after joining the board of directors. "I realized, sitting amongst these very prominent business leaders, that I didn't have the sort of corporate relationships that are traditionally associated with board members of large cultural institutions and that I didn't know how I could be effective," she explains. "It really struck me that the most important thing for an internationally-renowned ballet company is to cultivate the next generation of the audience: that really is its lifeline. I thought a lot about what I was learning about the perception of ballet and that a lot of people didn't know about it, so it occurred to me that it would be really interesting to be able to show the life of this particular organism."
For NYCB, the series dovetails perfectly with a range of other initiatives meant to attract younger audiences, including the NYCB Art Series, which began in January with $29 tickets and an installation in the David H. Koch Theater by the Brooklyn street-art collaborative FAILE. The partnership with AOL opens up a connection to hundreds of millions of new viewers, many of whom may know little about ballet and even less about NYCB. "It's going to be a wonderful way to introduce ourselves to people who aren't in New York City," Katherine Brown, NYCB's Executive Director, says. "As a company that doesn't tour a tremendous amount, it's terrific to be able to get our content and our work out beyond the city."
That new audience can expect to be drawn in by a special interactive experience, according to Karen Cahn, AOL On Network's General Manager, featuring periodic pop-up spots connecting viewers to relevant additional content. The clickable spots will provide a fuller viewing experience than traditional television allows, offering both newcomers and longtime fans the opportunity to delve more deeply into what they're seeing. "The idea is to create much deeper engagement in the content itself while you're watching."
For soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, that engagement, even if it doesn't lead to a direct increase in ticket sales, is a worthy goal in its own right. "The hope for this series is to be able to pique someone's interest. Then they can go to the website, watch the videos, and find their way to NYCB," she says.
Parker insists that that little nudge can be all that is needed to turn a neophyte into a lifelong fan. "My experience has been that once somebody comes one time, they always come back," she says. "It's the introduction they need; it's the gateway that we're trying to provide them."
Jonathan Shia is a New York-based freelance writer and the editor of The Last Magazine.