News&Observer – Carolina Ballet reaches out to a younger audience

September 16th, 2016

By Linda Haac – Correspondent

RALEIGH — Can a millennial choreographer attract more millennials to the ballet?

That is a question the Carolina Ballet should soon be able to answer.

Zalman (“Zali”) Raffael, the company’s 30-year-old resident choreographer, is presenting his first story ballet, “La Mer,” through Oct. 2 at the Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh. The piece has many elements that might appeal to a broader – and younger – audience, those sought-after millennials prized by all fine arts organizations.

Sara Reichle, the Carolina Ballet’s marketing director, acknowledged the ballet like other arts groups can find it hard to engage that audience, but added: “If we can get them in the door, I think we can hook them.”

In addition to “La Mer,” the opening program for the season includes three pieces choreographed by the company’s artistic director, Robert (“Ricky”) Weiss: “Stravinsky Pas De Deux,” “The Double” and “Beethoven: Piano Concerto #5.” Weiss is a former New York City Ballet principal dancer who performed under George Balanchine.

Raffael, who trained at the School of American Ballet, has choreographed 17 ballets for the Carolina Ballet Company over the past three years. He says “La Mer” is not as structured as some of his others, and is more lush.

The story serving as subtext is a familiar one, especially for North Carolinians: the idea of a family trip to the beach. It gives the piece an impressionistic grounding and a naturalistic feel. The story also concerns the struggles as well as sorrows inherent in mother-and-daughter relationships. A romantic angle is included, as well as a dark edge. The piece signals an underwater world that sucks people away.

During a recent rehearsal, Raffael’s dancers used the entire studio to express the fluidity of the sea. The patterning was interesting with any number of little sweet runs. You could almost feel the movement of seaweed, the lure of brief attractions, the sting of salt water.

Another draw is the music. “La Mer” is an iconic piece from French composer Claude Debussy. Some speculate his three symphonic sketches, as Debussy labeled them, may have inspired some of John Williams’ score for the film “Jaws” as well as the Nine Inch Nails song of the same name.

“You have to go more than once. It’s like learning a different language.” – Zalman (“Zali”) Raffael, choreographer

Raffael said the story his ballet tells is obviously subtle and not linear. Metaphors abound. That can be hard for people who’ve had no experience with ballet or the fine arts to appreciate – at first.

He acknowledged that ballet can be an acquired taste: “You have to go more than once,” Raffael said. “It’s like learning a different language.”
But he thinks it’s a language that young people should put down their phones and learn. “It’s an experience,” he says. “It’s participating in a community.”

Getting that community participation is, of course, the aim of all arts groups. Reichle says the Carolina Ballet has a strong donor base. But the ballet’s core audience is women age 35 and up, Reichle says, and adds that luring the next generation is important to its long-term success. So far, the national data shows a worrying trend. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts found 18- to 24-year-olds attend fewer fine arts events – art museum exhibits and classical music, jazz, live theater, opera and ballet performances – than they did 10 years ago. Accessibility, cost and, of course, that ever-present phone that puts the world at their fingertips are all factors.

A young choreographer is not the only way the Carolina Ballet is making ballet more accessible. Like other groups working to broaden their audience, it offers reduced ticket prices to college students, holds special parties for young professionals on occasion, and uses social media from Twitter to Instagram to communicate. It offered a Groupon deal for tickets to “La Mer” and, when there’s availability, free tickets are given to high-school students.

“Last year,” Reichle said, “we had high schoolers coming on a date night.”

That’s part of the answer in gaining audience, but will 30-year-olds show up? That another question.

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