Date: August 14 2012
The garrulous arena of social networking might seem a world away from the introspective quiet of the ballet studio. But dancers are proving enthusiastic tweeters, bloggers and posters, creating a daily hum of chatter about everything from rehearsals, classes and injuries, to big breaking news. When dancer Sergei Polunin made his shock exit from the British Royal Ballet in January, his gnomic tweets (''Just have to get through one more night!!! then will make my next move'') were scoured for clues to his state of mind.
San Francisco Ballet (SFB) may well be at the forefront of this new wave. At their modern, purpose-built base in the city's Civic Center, I find a company in thrall to social media. ''I'm not really a technology person,'' principal ballerina Maria Kochetkova says. Yet in 2005, she was one of the first professional dancers to sign up to Twitter and, as @balletrusse, she now has 180,000 followers. Meanwhile, in the marketing department, there's a full-time ''digital engagement co-ordinator'' posting comments on Facebook and Twitter, and drumming up online buzz.
SFB was founded in 1933 - making it the US's oldest major ballet company - and the troupe has always boasted a pioneering spirit. Under the current direction of Helgi Tomasson, it has earned a reputation as a talent-spotter of original work. When the company comes to Britain in September, seven of its works will have been created in-house in the past couple of years. It's a number made even more impressive by the fact SFB receives little public funding. This is one reason the company has invested so much in engaging with its fans online.
Tomasson admits that, personally, he's a refusenik when it comes to technology: he doesn't even use email. ''I see people in front of monitors,'' he says, ''and I wonder how they have the time.'' But he knows how vital technology has become in accessing younger audiences. The majority of people now buy tickets online and, according to SFB's digital co-ordinator, Carly Severn, social networking has become a crucial way of steering them towards the company's website.
SFB does, however, have one significant advantage in this project: their proximity to Silicon Valley. So even if a dancer such as Kochetkova claims not to be into technology, she can hardly avoid meeting people who are. She recently signed up to Pair, a new platform designed for couples to converse. When I ask how she heard of it, she says nonchalantly, ''Oh, I just know the people who invented it. This is a small city.'' The ties go deeper in the case of the creator of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, who is also a serious ballet fan. His former partner, Sofiane Sylve, was an SFB principal dancer. He also cites ballet as the inspiration for the pared-down, 140-character tweet. ''I've learnt a lot from ballet,'' he told Vanity Fair recently. ''I appreciate the co-ordination and the discipline. Making something simple is very difficult.'' Severn says she has learnt a huge amount from experts in the Valley. Twitter, for example, tends to be accessed by smartphone users, making it good for quick-fire engagement. Facebook is better for offering ticket promotions because most people access it from computers, where they're also more likely to complete financial transactions. Wednesday is the best day to post comments and photographs on Facebook, and it's best to have images that feature red and yellow because they contrast with Facebook's blue background. The power of networks to access vast communities is astonishing compared with old methods such as leafleting - but it has to be done right. Severn says: ''If you simply push out marketing messages, people don't like it.'' Sarah Hogarty is Severn's counterpart at San Francisco's De Young Museum, another institution investing heavily in social networking. ''There's a very fine line between talking and spamming,'' she says. ''What you want to do is harness the conversations that are going on.'' For her, the social networks create a kind of ''meta-museum'', where a huge variety of other activities and discourses can go on. ''Picasso,'' she says, ''would definitely have tweeted.'' The American Ballet Theatre has just launched a phone app, allowing its followers to keep up with news, performance times and castings. Back on this side of the Atlantic, the Royal Ballet recently filmed an entire day of class and rehearsals, streaming it live via YouTube and The Guardian, and attracting 200,000 viewers worldwide.
Everyone I meet at SFB caught the Royal Ballet event. While marketing regarded it with envy, dancers saw it as a means of expanding and developing. Historically, the discipline of a dancer's working life has kept them relatively isolated within the studio or theatre. Now, it's the potential for forging contacts outside that draws so many to the web. ''Dancers share the same world,'' SFB soloist James Sofranko says. ''We can tweet about having a bad class; someone at La Scala [Theatre Ballet School] might tweet about performing in a ballet you've danced yourself.'' His colleague Garen Scribner is just as enthusiastic: ''When I started posting videos and photos of myself on Facebook, I started getting comments from people like Christopher Wheeldon and Jorma Elo. I thought, 'God, this is important.' If these choreographers come into the company to make a work, maybe they'll already have me in mind when they come to cast it.''
Both agree with Kochetkova that social networking gives them invaluable contact with their fans. ''Before, I might just have the opinion of one newspaper,'' she says. ''Now, 10 minutes after a show, people are tweeting me what they liked or didn't like.'' Yet there are drawbacks to this culture of instant sharing, as fans tend to like a bit of scandal. New York City Ballet recently reined in the sometimes-subversive commentary of its dancer Devin Alberda (@dalberda). One post read: ''My turns were off today because the pianist was playing The Thieving Magpie and I was thinking about gang rape. Thanks Kubrick.'' When he tweeted about NYCB's management, including one about his director, Peter Martins, being charged for drunk-driving, there were steps taken to fix acceptable parameters of social networking with the dancers' union.
Scribner accepts that lines have to be drawn. ''When you're tweeting or posting photographs, you have to be careful not to suggest anything disparaging about another artist or your own company, even accidentally. When the curtain goes up and there's this beautiful thing, part of the wonder for the audience is not knowing how it came to be there. You want to learn more - but also enjoy the magic.'' The chatter matters, but in the end, no one could question Tomasson's assertion: ''However well you market yourself, what counts is what's on the stage.''
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