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What do you need to sell a mixed bill?


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I was wondering earlier today how you would go about broadening someone's exposure to ballet in particular beyond the big full-evening warhorses, thinking of trying to persuade someone in particular to try a mixed bill, and then realised that this has become quite a serious topic in recent weeks. Mixed bills can indeed sell - witness the Royal Ballet's recent double bill of The Dream and Song of the Earth, where I think all performances sold out - but many struggle.

 

So, leaving aside the more crass aspects like sex, violence and controversy, and assuming that you don't have the luxury of access to "big name" collaborators/performers to attract audiences, how *do* you sell a mixed bill, particularly to the general public rather than to afficionados? What attracts you as an individual, what did attract you when you were starting out, or, if you're a relative newcomer to dance, what *would* attract you? Why shouldn't you have just as good a time at a triple bill as when sitting through a full-evening Swan Lake (assuming that you find the latter a tempting prospect in the first place)? And how would you then persuade someone to come back and try another mixed bill?

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Alison, I think it is a matter of tradition and experience. You look at New York City ballet and the audience that was BUILT to support the regime of constant mixed programmes. It took three goes before the company really grabbed hold ... Third time lucky as t'were. (The education department does a wonderful job giving free information and free docent lectures at all performances. The NYCB guild also give in-focus programmes which cost a fraction of those at the ROH. This has led to the creation of an audience hungry for diversity. This is not, I think, a British tradition - and, as a result, companies based in or striving for this particular kind of ethic struggle in London. (Some struggle even when doing substantive narrative ballets, to wit BRB's recent Coppelia, etc.) NYCB, for example, are free to do much more diversely mixed programmes in Paris than they were in London. Still, that was probably for good reason, as even hedged bets failed in that instance (true, the enormous seat cost was another MAJOR factor). Just think of the wide Balanchine rep that Londoners (unless well travelled) will have NEVER seen. It is such a pity, especially as you can NEVER buy those audiences back ... and the opportunity for change in audience perceptions simply recedes.

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I'll confess that the first time I went to a mixed bill, was because a) they offered me cheap tickets as an enticement to a relative newbie and B) my fave dancer was dancing.

 

Now I go (perhaps slightly more as an aficiando these days) simply to see LOTS of top dancers in one night. Also, many of the short works have become favourites. So I'm an easy sell. To sell to non-regulars, I guess you have to hang it on some sort of gimick - a theme, some famous faces (i.e. known to the non-ballet goer) as guests and/or collaborators. Saying that, there isn't a guarantee to sell out even then. Chroma had hints of this, but it was only after the rave reviews and the buzz therefore generated that it really took off (aided by some judicious cheap tix to a lot of students and White Stripes fans perhaps!).

 

Think if you could find the magic formula, you could name your own (though probably discounted) price!! :-)

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A very good topic, Alison. Related to this, I've been wondering whether companies have statistics on the pattern of ballet going in this country (I'm not putting this very well). For example, of those people who went to the RB in 2011 what proportion went once, twice etc? What proportion went to see the same production more than once? I am always quite surprised how little interest the parents and children at my daughter's (local) ballet school show in live ballet. It's almost as if there's a disconnect between doing and watching ballet. I know that live ballet can be very expensive but it doesn't have to be. It's worrying for the future if even this group is not going to watch live ballet.

 

Specifically on Alison's point, I think that in the UK we have grown up with the idea that ballet means European folk stories and fairy tales told in the way of the Russian ballet tradition. If you asked a non-balletgoer to name a ballet s/he would almost certainly name Swan Lake. Many people would not know that Romeo and Juliet is a ballet. With the exception of the RB, I think that many companies struggle to attract audiences to any full-length ballets other than Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and perhaps Sleeping Beauty. ENB found it very difficult to sell Manon, particularly outside London. I've noticed that most of the full-length ballets that are being created today are very much designed to appeal to families eg Alice, Beauty, Aladdin. If it's hard to sell full-length ballets it's even harder to sell mixed bills. I can't tell you how depressing it is to see how poorly attended ENB's excellent programme at the Coli was last night even after ticket prices were slashed. I am at a loss to know how the situation could be improved. The RB seem to be in a unique position in that all its programmes including the mixed bills sell very well.

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I think the RB's youtube day helped in a lot of ways, and it's something I'd like to see again. That rehearsal of "Sweet Violets" was utterly riveting to me, and if I had the money spare, I certainly would go to see it, based on that rehearsal.

 

I do think people (ballet parents in particular!) are finding money a real struggle right now. Perhaps the ballet companies are finding that the only way they can sell full priced tickets is by putting on crowd pleasers like Swan Lake. Hopefully when money worries ease a bit, people will risk spending their cash on triple bills and new works.

 

I do think RB and even ENB should think about broadcasting more rehearsals though; to me that was a stroke of genius and should be repeated. If I find some cash down the back of the sofa I'm going to try to see Sweet Violets if it's on again next year.

 

 

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One thing I think ENB should do is to follow the RB example and sell tickets at different prices according to the programme, I doubt CG would sell so many tickets for triple bills if they were at the top price, in fact the Polyphonia bill is even cheaper than the standard triple bill, top price anywhere only £42!

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I consider myself a ballet ignoramus and I only saw my first ballet a very few years ago at a Hamlyn Performance. It was Nutcracker and it typified everything that I thought I didn't like about ballet - the sparkly costumes, all that prancing around, the plot (What on earth was the second act all about?) I considered it a children's story done for children - a certain sort of old-fashioned, middle-class child. My own children were bored stiff! But through the Hamlyn Club I had access to other performances, including the mixed bills. When I saw the Rite of Spring it was simply fantastic - thrilling, dynamic, much more "real" and significant. I had no idea that dance could be like this.

 

I think many people imagine ballet to be like Nutcracker - old-fashioned, irrelevant, for children who like dressing-up. Marketing the mixed bills as "not the Nutcracker" - thrilling ballets for modern grown-ups is, I think, the way to go. Their shortness should be an asset - three very different productions for the price as one! They should be the perfect introduction to ballet.

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I consider myself a ballet ignoramus and I only saw my first ballet a very few years ago at a Hamlyn Performance. It was Nutcracker and it typified everything that I thought I didn't like about ballet - the sparkly costumes, all that prancing around, the plot (What on earth was the second act all about?) I considered it a children's story done for children - a certain sort of old-fashioned, middle-class child. My own children were bored stiff! But through the Hamlyn Club I had access to other performances, including the mixed bills. When I saw the Rite of Spring it was simply fantastic - thrilling, dynamic, much more "real" and significant. I had no idea that dance could be like this.

 

I think many people imagine ballet to be like Nutcracker - old-fashioned, irrelevant, for children who like dressing-up. Marketing the mixed bills as "not the Nutcracker" - thrilling ballets for modern grown-ups is, I think, the way to go. Their shortness should be an asset - three very different productions for the price as one! They should be the perfect introduction to ballet.

 

I absolutely love Nutcracker! :-). It's just so Christmassy! (*blushes and runs away*)

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Great topic!

 

Rowan - don't blush - a lot of my ballet-watching friends loathe Nutcracker and many others, like myself, do not regard it a favourite. I can and do enjoy the performances but if I had to choose one production to see it wouldn't be Nutcracker.

 

I don't think it is correct, Aileen, to say that the audiences in this country have grown up with the idea that ballet means European folk stories and fairy tales told in the way of the Russian ballet tradition. A very dear friend of mine who had started her ballet-watching in the early 1950s used to bemoan the fact that we got far fewer mixed programmes now than we used to get in the olden days. She said that when the earlier incarnations of BRB came to Liverpool in the 1950s they used to bring THREE programmes - two mixed bills and maybe a full-length like Giselle that would have a shorter piece before it. I don't know when this situation changed.

 

When I first started watching ballet in 1984, there would always be a mixed programme as well as a full length during the week from both BRB and ENB.

 

For myself I tend to prefer mixed programmes. I had started by watching contemporary dance in the late 1970s and that was always mixed programmes so that is what I was used to. Additionally with a mixed programme you can nearly always find at least one thing to like (whereas you can be miserable all evening if you see a full-length you don't like) and you usually get to see more of the company.

 

I don't know what the answer is.

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For much of the general public (and we need more of it to go to the ballet) ballet is expensive, elitist and old-fashioned. They can have no idea of the variety in ballet. There are those that never go to the ballet (a large proportion of the population) and those who will only go to a very limited range of ballets (invariably Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderalla and perhaps Sleeping Beauty). Only a tiny number of people go and see anything else. Should companies work harder with those that go and see some ballet or should they focus on the people that never go at all? I've wondered how much of an overlap there is between other forms of dance and ballet. Personally, I don't go to see other forms of dance. Does anyone else? I'll be interested to see whether ENB's Flawless collaboration yields results. Has Wayne McGregor brought new people into the ROH? I know that everyone hates surveys but I do think that surveys of at least those people who have bought tickets might reveal what would make them go to the ballet again or more often. I've been wondering if ENB at least should be more imaginative about its pricing. Perhaps they could give discounts according to the number of performances booked for (as Sadler's Wells do) or have some kind of Loyalty Scheme. I certainly think that they should have lower prices for the less popular programmes.

 

 

 

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Janet, so when and why did things change? Was there a "golden age" of mixed bills, perhaps when Ashton was at the height of his powers? I'm afraid that with triple bills at CG at least, there is usually one ballet that I don't want to see. Next season there are several short ballets that I would like to see at CG but each one of them is scheduled with something that I have seen and don't want to see again and so I probably won't go and see that programme.

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Aileen, I would say that mixed programmes in the provinces were here as a regular feature until at least the noughties even though they were not well attended. ENB dropped them in Liverpool some years ago but still brought them to Manchester until three or four years ago. BRB seem to have dropped mixed programmes from the North in the last couple of years.

 

I don't know when the golden age withered away - I expect before I started watching ballet but perhaps ballet-watchers of even longer standing can comment.

 

Re ENB pricing - I mentioned in one of the ENB threads that I had heard many years ago that the Coli is a VERY expensive venue to use so the company may have very little leaway. It would probably depend on their contract with the theatre. Members of the Friends of ENB could get good discounts at most venues that, in my case, easily covered the cost of membership. I do not know if that is still the case. NB Friends can still get discounts at some venues but not usually at weekends these days. It is always worth checking though.

 

When I started going to Sunderland (one of my favourite BRB venues) BRB/theatre had experimented with selling all seats for £10 to combat poor houses. They succeeded! As the ticket prices have gone up gradually (now a top price of £24) the audiences have tailed off. Interestingly enough, Sunderland FC march onto the pitch to Dance of the Knights from R&J. The first time I saw R&J in Sunderland BRB had produced a CD single of the music which was being given away as a tie-in. One evening we were not in our usual seats in the stalls because the first few rows had been taken by Sunderland FC Supporters Club. I think some of those people still come.

 

I still go to see Contemporary dance at my localish venues and have dipped my toes into Indian waters and hip hop and I've also seen companies that I wouldn't even try to classify (eg Earthfall whom I saw last week at the Lowry).

 

Most people I know seem to like story ballets rather than abstract but I just like watching dance.

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Janet, BRB still seem to do a lot of mixed programmes and they still bring some of them to London. In the past few years I have seen at least three that I can immediately recall, two of which are among the best ballets that I have seen: Serenade and Symphonic Variations. I wonder if mixed programmes were never particularly well attended but this was just accepted until financial pressures forced the companies to reduce the number which they put on and replace them with three act story ballets, some of which still didn't sell well (eg Manon for ENB). I think that the RB are very brave scheduling so many mixed programmes for next season but their position in the market and their large supporter base enables them to take more risks than other companies. They have put a lot of effort into marketing the upcoming programme which they were probably a bit worried about selling; the live stream showing rehearsals of the programme received a lot of press coverage and was an inspired piece of marketing.

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In my early ballet-going days immediately post-war, the RB - SWB as it was then - gave many more triple bills than nowadays. In addition, there was more variety in those bills, ie. instead of having one fixed bill of three ballets there was a "pool" of several ballets and the mix would be varied across the week. It also helped to bring the public in if Margot Fonteyn was dancing in at least one of those ballets, eg. Symphonic Variations. There were also fewer three-act ballets in the repertoire, just Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Giselle, and Cinderella following a little later. The previous wartime repertoire had featured many triple bills and short new ballets, and I think that the public had got used to the idea that an evening at the ballet did not necessarily involve just one full length work. Recently I think that the most successful triple bills sell largely on word of mouth, and reviews, with the result that although the first few performances may be ill-attended the last few often sell out.

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Aileen, you have an interesting point about access to attendance statistics. I wonder whether those companies which aren't linked to a theatre in the same way that the RB is have such good access to box office statistics and can process them, or whether the theatre holds tight to them?

 

As for the suggestion that ENB offer discounts, it was pointed out to me a few days ago that, at least for the Coliseum, there is some sort of multibuy scheme covering, I'd guess, the whole year's programming. I must admit, I'd totally failed to notice this myself!

 

As for publicity photos, which I don't think has been mentioned so far - I've only skimmed through - I'm a firm believer, for much of the time, in making life easy for people spotting these adverts by having something clearly balletic (although preferably not too clichéd) on them that would give people an idea of what they might see if they bought a ticket, and preferably something that will intrigue them. Advertising campaigns which didn't work, in my book, included the RB's Hammersmith Apollo season while the ROH was closed, when several of the dancers were made to look more like fashion models than obviously dancers, and ENB's 1989 (I think) London Dominion Theatre campaign, where the posters just contained the words "English National Ballet" to stress the change of name from London Festival Ballet (you can see examples of more traditional posters before and after that era if you're ever down in the lower studio at Markova House). I used to walk past bus stops with the ENB posters and they never made any impact on me - and I was someone who was potentially interested in going to see them! I know some people stayed away from that season in protest at the name change and/or the choice of venue, but given that ENB didn't have a huge core of regular fans I don't think that can have been the only reason for the poor ticket sales.

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Well, the RB have just come up with another marketing ploy .... Send a note out to all ticket buyers telling them that some elements of the new/upcoming mixed bill may well be a tad scandalous in taste ... (e.g., semi-nudity, violence and BAD LANGUAGE!)

 

I have just had mine today ... I wonder if the ROH BO will be especially hot tomorrow?

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I think that ENB are disadvantaged by not having a "home" like the RB, and, like other touring companies, they sell their tickets through several different box offices who of course have no particular allegiance to ENB. I'd be interested to know what the arrangements between ENB and the theatres are. Who bears the risks financially? Who sets the ticket prices? There has been wholesale slashing of ticket prices this week. Whilst this has been great for some people it has upset others (possibly loyal supporters of ENB) who had bought full-price tickets and who may hold back from buying tickets another time in the hope that cheaper tickets will become available later. How many additional tickets have ENB sold as a result of this wholesale slashing of ticket prices?

 

Anyway, returning to the original topic, I think that ticket sales for all but the most popular ballets are generally very price sensitive (particularly in these difficult economic times) and that companies should charge lower prices for the less popular programmes including mixed programmes. ENB please take note! I also think that mixed programmes have to be very well marketed.

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Aileen - I subscribe to BRB in Birmingham (a 200-mile round trip) so I see all their mixed programmes, some of which sell better than others. I was pointing out that they no longer do mixed programmes at two of their core theatres (Sunderland and Lowry) although they still do them in London and Plymouth (as well as Brum). As a point of interest BRB are only doing one mixed programme in their home theatre in 2012/13. SW is getting one that has all ballets which will have been on show THIS season and the Autumn one.

 

ENB do mixed programmes in London (and this year in Australia I believe) but nowhere else.

 

Those of us who don't have the benefit of living in London have much more difficulty in seeing mixed programmes, involving considerably more expense than just the cost of a ticket and a local public transport fare. For example, each trip to the Lowry that I make currently costs me about £12 in fuel plus sometimes parking (it's an 80 mile round trip for me and is my local venue for BRB now).

 

Many years ago (early 90s) I wrote to ENB complaining that they were bringing Coppelia to Liverpool for the 3rd time in 5 years. The response that I got was very polite and detailed but the bottom line was that Coppelia sold in Liverpool and not much else did!

 

Re Wulff's point, Rambert still have a pool of works in their mixed programmes. They do, however, tour to very diverse places and tend not to do full matinees so I am reduced to the Lowry and occasionally Theatre Clwyd.

 

NB also suffer from not having a permanent home theatre. They did experiment with subscription tickets for a couple of years but I believe they may have proved almost impossible to manage as the company had to negotiate discounts with 2 or 3 theatres.

 

As far as I am aware, companies contract with the theatres on an individual or group (eg ATG) basis. Who may face a loss depends on how the contract has been negotiated. The Arts Council includes core theatres in its conditions for touring for each company. If the companies appear in any other theatres that is subject to their own negotiations and would not be covered by any element of ACE funding.

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Janet, how does subscription to BRB work? Does it only cover performances in Birmingham? Perhaps ENB should introduce something like this. It's interesting that it was as long ago as the early nineties that ENB started to restrict what it brought to Liverpool (no reflection on Liverpool - it just happens to be the place we're talking about).

 

I wonder if ENB should use Sadler's Wells more; it must be cheaper than the Coli. You can't sell as many tickets but if you are performing to a half-empty Coli even after huge discounting you can't be making very much money, and it must be so depressing for the dancers and staff who've worked so hard to put on a great performance. I wonder if the Coli is in a unique position in London and is therefore able to charge whatever it wants. We don't really know exactly how the finances work at these companies but apparently ticket sales for The Nutcracker (which ENB has performed every single year since it was founded) accounts for a really significant proportion of its income (maybe 15%).

 

Wulff, it's really interesting to hear from you about your early ballet-going days.

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The subscription is what it says on the tin. For the 2012/13 season there are 6 different programmes. The subscription comprises one ticket for each programme, you choose which performance you want to see of each programme. Subscription tickets attract a 25% discount on ticket prices and you dont have to pay the mandatory Hippodrome booking fee (which can only be otherwise avoided if you pay cash).

 

I expect it would not be feasible for the other touring companies unless they could band together a minimum of 3 or 4 different programmes. Again there would probably be more than one theatre involved increasing the difficulty.

 

As regards selling mixed programmes, over the years I have seen some very striking advertising but often these days the mixed programmes are just mentioned on the poster that features the full-length work.

 

Some theatres offer decent discounts if you book for both programmes. If you can book in advance ATG theatres usually offer an early booking discount. ATG also has its own membership scheme (with an annual fee) that offers discounts and some theatres class Friends memberships as concessionary.

 

Where companies still put on 2 programmes in a week, I would be interested to know how they decide the order in which to show them. It used to be that the mixed programmes were at the end of the week. These days they are usually at the start of the week.

 

Of course, outside London, the issue seems to be not only with selling mixed programmes but also with ballets that are not the Tchaikovsky big three, Coppelia or Romeo and Juliet. Both BRB and NB (the two companies I mainly follow) have loyal audiences in their target theatres but they still need to bring in new audiences.

 

I know both these companies do wonderful outreach work in schools. Recently in Sunderland, I attended the midweek matinee of Coppelia and there must have been a couple of hundred (very well behaved) school children in the audience. The company education department had been holding workshops with the schools. I hope some of these children will attend the ballet of their own volition in the future.

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A propos the so-called RB 'Golden Age,' the Ballet chapter of the1959-60 ROH Annual Report notes that the company's provincial tours had been the most successful on record - this was in Touring Company days, of course. However, it goes on to note "the essentially conservative nature of provincial audiences, who have preferred to play safe with the classics rather than a triple bill of novelties, and the repertory has been modified in consequence." So, Janet, that may partially answer your question at #11, and it sounds as if your friend was in something of a minority back then.

 

The report went on to suggest that TV might help in spreading the word if, instead of concentrating on classics "particularly unsuited to the medium," it showed some modern works "better adapted to the limitations inevitably imposed by the screen." And around the early 60s, the BBC did show ballets like "Checkmate" and "Les Rendezvous" - but to what long term educative effect, I simply cannot say.

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Vic-Wells Ballet

1930 - 29 short ballets (including 12 opera ballets)

1932 - first full length ballet (Coppélia)

 

Sadler's Wells Ballet

1940 - 5 full length, 24 short inc diverts

1950 - 6 full length, 19 short inc diverts

 

Royal Ballet

1960 - 7 full length, 22 short inc diverts

1970 - 5 full length, 27 short inc diverts

1980 - 9 full length, 24 short + 36 diverts!!

1990 - 6 full length, 21 short inc diverts

2000 - 7 full length, 20 short + 24 diverts

2010 - 8 full length, 17 short + 11 diverts

 

These figures are from Robert Kimber's useful Ballet Chronicles. I suppose they support the idea of a switch from shorter to longer works.

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What an interesting topic. I like triple bills, the shorter ballets tend to get straight to the point. There is no need for vast amounts of people standing around, setting the scene but doing very little dancing.

 

On a more practical level, I think it is risky to put on a triple bill with 2 new works in it. Give the prices for the seats, I would never book tickets for anything unless I had a rough idea of what the ballets were about. Happy to risk one novelty, not two. And if the bill does contain entirely new work (s), at least have some sort of advance publicity. Given the success of the Royal Ballet Open Day, is there any reason why companies could not show short snippets of the reheasals for upcoming shows on Youtube, for example, to create interest? I would happily buy a ticket for the Sweet Violets programme, because I have a good idea about the music, type of dance, potential costumes etc. Would I have bought a ticket for one of the first batch of performances otherwise? Probably not.

 

Also, The Polyphonia programme is billed as one of "Contemporary brilliance". Personally, I think it does help if at least one of the ballets contains classical constumes and music, to appeal to the more conventional ballet going audience.

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Janet, so when and why did things change? Was there a "golden age" of mixed bills, perhaps when Ashton was at the height of his powers? I'm afraid that with triple bills at CG at least, there is usually one ballet that I don't want to see. Next season there are several short ballets that I would like to see at CG but each one of them is scheduled with something that I have seen and don't want to see again and so I probably won't go and see that programme.

 

You could always sit in the bar, when the one you don't like is on. Its what I do when Pierot Luniaire (sp??) is on! :-)

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I started off my balletgoing career(!) only going to triple bills where I was interested in all 3 works, until I realised how much I was missing out on by so doing. (I mean, my goodness, wasn't it a bill of Firebird, Enigma Variations and Rubies that I turned my nose up at back in the late 80's? :blush:) After all, my first experience of The Dream had it paired with Tales of Beatrix Potter ...

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A few more statistics from that ROH 1959-60 Report, suggesting that the London audience also had a stronger taste for full-length works at the time:

 

Average paying attendance for 'Triple Bills' - 1,569.

 

Average paying attendance for full-length works varied from 2,052 for 'Ondine' to 'Prince of the Pagodas' (Cranko version) at 1,504.

 

A full-house at the time would have been 2,230 and, from 19 October 1959, 2,233. (A footnote explains that from that date a re-seating in the Amphi and the installation of extra Boxes in the Grand Tier resulted in "an increase of three seats with a slight reduction in monetary capacity.")

 

 

(And, from another Annex, does anyone remember the 'Auditorium Candelabra Fund' which ended the year some £167 in the black, despite expenditure of £2,528 ..... on what? We had electricity as far north as Edinburgh by that time.)

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I was reading this topic with interest. I'm not sure I really know the answer of how to increase interest in Triple Bills but the ROH helped me! I first discovered the ROH £5 amphitheatre standing tickets as a student and I've just been looking through my cast lists. The first few I went to see were the "big" ballets - Swan Lake, Giselle, Manon. I then discovered the ROH Student Standby scheme and the only ballet tickets generally available are to Triple Bills and so I began to get more adventurous - I discovered Balanchine and the one act Macmillan ballets and then started to come to everything and anything. By the end of my final year (a six year degree), I was coming to every production the RB put on. Now, working shifts, I have to be very selective about my choices of production, and generally I'll come to a Triple Bill (with some exceptions of course!).

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. The company education department had been holding workshops with the schools. I hope some of these children will attend the ballet of their own volition in the future.

 

The outreach schemes can be very successful. One of my own Nutcracker-hating children was identified for ballet training through one of these schemes and is now both a ballet-doing and a ballet-watching teenager. The sorts of ballets children on these programmes are exposed to are not necessarily the big classics either. Checkmate, Firebird and Elite Syncopations all spring to mind, to name but a few - definitely not truncated versions of Sleeping Beauty or Angelina Ballerina.

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