The Programming Puzzle

Classic Arts Features   The Programming Puzzle
Beginning in 2007, New York City Ballet is presenting its repertory in a whole new way.

Twice a year, Peter Martins, NYCB ballet master in chief, meets in his office with his assistant, Sean Lavery, and ballet master Russell Kaiser for several day-long sessions of what might be called programming choreography. Together they decide on the ballets in the upcoming season's repertory (typically around 40) and choose the line-up for each performance.

"You want a nice, varied menu of ballets for every evening and matinee," says Mr. Lavery, who has worked on programming for 16 years. "You don't want three piano ballets or an evening of just strings. You don't want all tutu ballets. You need an upbeat ballet like Allegro Brillante as an opener and something big and festive, like Vienna Waltzes, for a finale. You need a mix of Balanchine and Robbins and new works. And you have to make sure the Tuesday-night subscribers aren't seeing Symphony in Three Movements twice."

Mr. Martins and his team faced a fresh set of challenges when they scheduled this winter's repertory. Instead of presenting different combinations of individual ballets each night, the new season features 10 distinct repertory programs (following two weeks of The Sleeping Beauty), each with a title and theme. "Essential Balanchine," for example, presents three classics created between 1957 and 1960 — Square Dance, Liebeslieder Walzer, and Stars and Stripes. Each program will be danced three to five times, which is about the same as individual ballets were usually performed in previous seasons. "None of the subscribers will see fewer ballets," Mr. Lavery says. "The season is just packaged differently."

The new programming was designed to create a context for one-act ballets and provide more information about the choreography, music, and history of a work. "It's meant to allow us to communicate more consistently with our current audience, and to provide an easier introduction to NYCB for audiences who aren't as familiar with us," says Kenneth Tabachnick, NYCB general manager. "If audiences have more information about the ballets and choreographers, it makes it easier to choose what they're going to see."

Says Mr. Martins, "Now we have an opportunity to describe an evening in a much better fashion than we had in the past."

The new system has allowed the programmers to take a more curatorial approach to their job, creating careful groupings that invite the audience to study the relationships between the dances. Some programs evolved serendipitously given the ballets available this season. "The all-Stravinsky program practically put itself together," Mr. Lavery says. Others, such as "Tribute to Kirstein," fit neatly with the Company's celebration of the centennial of NYCB co-founder Lincoln Kirstein. The program showcases Tribute, a ballet by former NYCB dancer Christopher d'Amboise that will be performed by NYCB for the first time this season.

Making certain each subscriber sees different ballets each performance — with no duplicates from the previous season — remained one of the key challenges for the programmers. With an active repertory of more than 150 ballets, NYCB for years has systematically rotated signature works such as Serenade, Symphony in C, and Dances at a Gathering, keeping them in the rep for several consecutive seasons, then "resting" them for three seasons or more. Each season usually sees between 10 and 15 arrivals and departures, and this season is "about the same," Mr. Lavery says.

Vintage pieces outside the active rep also return from time to time, such as this season's revival of Jerome Robbins's Dybbuk, created for NYCB in 1974 with a commissioned score by Leonard Bernstein. The ballet, which was staged recently by San Francisco Ballet, fits easily in "Masters at Work," a program of pieces by Balanchine and Robbins.

Programming a season begins months before opening night. Mr. Martins and his team usually work on weekends, when there are fewer rehearsals and other obligations — "all day Saturday and all day Sunday," says Mr. Lavery. Their first-draft schedule is sent to every NYCB department head for feedback. "The production manager might say we can't hang Vienna Waltzes and Davidsb‹ndlert‹nze in the same week," Mr. Lavery says. "And the music coordinator will check that he can work out a realistic orchestra rehearsal schedule."

Generally, the program goes through four drafts until the final draft is approved. "We get the final final, the revised final, the 'this time we're not kidding' final," Mr. Lavery says with a laugh.

The marketing department also looks over the drafts for potential attractions, such as family-friendly programs. This season the schedule lent itself to several mini-subscription series, including "Tuesdays with Balanchine" and "Girls' Night Out."

Though Mr. Tabachnick says it is too early to say if the new programming will be a success, the reaction has been positive on several fronts. The set programs allow the dancers to spread out their workload and better anticipate their schedules. "They're in heaven," he says. The Company hopes the changes will reduce rehearsal costs and injuries.

The new programming also means the same conductor will lead the orchestra for an entire evening. And the telemarketing team has found it easier to explain programs to subscribers, Mr. Tabachnick says.

For now, audiences can expect the new programming for the spring season. After that, it will be evaluated. "If things don't work out, we will take a hard look at it and learn from it and alter it," Mr. Martins says. "But we believe it will be beneficial to everybody, new and old."

Terry Trucco writes frequently about dance, design, and travel.

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