The New York City Ballet (NYCB) became a pillar of the classical art form the minute it was established in 1948. Its founders, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirsten had a simplistic, but focused goal: to bring together the great dancers of the time into one place, where a truly American repertory and modernity within it could flourish. The company has long been viewed as an institution that embraces innovation, so it's no surprise that in the 21st century the company is leading the pack through an art form very similar to the one being told on stage, storytelling.
The 21st century has grown into the era of social currency and its various languages. This interpersonal expression, if used correctly, can move audiences to create more meaningful relationships within the dialogue. This relationship for the NYCB has been carefully curated as of late, led by a team of professional storytellers on a special team called 'media projects.'
Ellen Bar on NYCB and BALLET 422
You were a ballet dancer for the New York City Ballet, first in the corps and then as a soloist. What were some of your favorite memories as a dancer?
That's a hard question, so many! Of course, getting to perform and inhabit this artform is what makes you want to be a dancer, but there are so many other things that come with that; I really loved the community of it, getting to hang out and work with your closest friends in the world. I loved touring and getting to see the world. I loved being able to be a working artist in New York City, where you're surrounded by creativity and inspiration. It always felt like the place where I belonged.
After retiring in 2011, you became the director of media projects for NYCB. How has your role evolved over the last 4 years?
Well, I'm only the 2nd person to have this position, so the media projects at NYCB are a relatively new initiative that have naturally evolved and will continue to evolve as the company grows and changes. The most important part of the job is creating a constant stream of compelling, high quality content for our site and our social channels. We're always looking for new ways to connect to audiences, to enrich their experience. We try to make different types of content to match different goals, but always supporting the live experience - not trying to replace it. In addition to that, there are larger long-form projects like AOL's City.Ballet and Ballet 422, and others that we have in the works, which are really exciting.
The NYCB's social media channels are chock full of beautiful content. How have audiences responded?
Our content has had a super positive response from our audience. We have a robust YouTube and Facebook following that's growing every day, and I think we're seen as a leader in the industry when it comes to producing content that's of a high quality and speaks both to our core audience and our new audiences. We always try to hit a balance of not being too insidery or, on the other hand, too dumbed down. I think the audience respects when they are respected! And they respond to the genuine love and care that we put into our content. We're telling the story of a beautiful artform in a beautiful institution and the beautiful people who make it happen. It's a lot easier to make content that feels honest and genuine because we are honestly, genuinely inspired. We're not selling detergent.
Where did the inspiration for Ballet 422 begin?
I had always thought it would be cool to tell the story of how a new ballet is made in a really in-depth way, that shows how the whole complex web of creativity and work that goes into it - but I thought it would be impossible. I thought, no choreographer will ever let us do that! And then Justin Peck came along, and he was so talented but also so new, and so much a part of NYCB because he was also a dancer there. If it was going to happen, he seemed like the right person. The director of the film, Jody Lee Lipes, saw Justin at a Works & Process presentation at the Guggenheim, and was really impressed with how clear his direction was, how focused he was in front of an audience, even though he was so young. So we were kind of inspired by different aspects of the same project, but those ideas all worked together really well.
Much of the magic of Ballet 422 takes audiences behind the scenes. How important was this storytelling strategy in the overall theme of the film?
The strategy was not to rely on talking heads or interviews, but instead to present the process without narration, so that audiences could just watch as if they were a fly on the wall, and draw their own conclusions. It's an unmediated experience, with no one telling the viewer what to think. It's a form of documentary that is really hard to make, but is so rewarding. It's one thing to tell people that our fabric is dyed in house; it's quite another to actually see the woman doing it, to see how painstaking it is. Jody is really inspired by those types of films, by filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers. It's a powerful form of storytelling that in some cases, and hopefully in this case, just has a greater impact than a more traditional style doc.
Ellen Bar of New York City Ballet on Ballet 422
Leading this effort is Ellen Bar, the director of media projects since 2011, who came into the position in one of the most organic ways possible, as a dancer herself. Bar began her career at the very young age of 8 while training at the School of American Ballet, then moved to the corps de ballet, and finally, to the much coveted role as soloist. Bar's first-hand knowledge of the art form combined with a keen knack for brand strategy has enabled the NYCB to create and participate in some rather compelling initiatives including a collaboration with AOL for City.Ballet, and through its organic channels including their YouTube platform, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. One of their newest projects, BALLET 422, is a long form film receiving international acclaim, co-produced by Bar, and directed by Jody Lee Lipes, whose credits include direction for HBO's GIRLS.
Ballet 422 follows NYCB dancer/choreographer Justin Peck, one of the youngest ever commissioned by the company through a myriad of new experiences as he collaborates with the artists that make the productions at the NYCB great. And there's a lot to consider: lighting, orchestra, costumes, and collaboration with his ballet friends - who are thrust to see him in a new light.
The ballet being followed is Paz de la Jolla, an original work with music from Martinu's Sinfonietta La Jolla. But the real subject of BALLET 422 (which is NYCB's 422 new ballet) - hence the numerical significance in the film's title - is not the ballet itself, rather it's the unbridled creative innovation that is missing in our era of 'social currency,' an expression that cannot be truly measured in the eyes of marketing professionals. In BALLET 422, Creativity is the protagonist, and audiences will not only be better fans of the NYCB brand, but inspired to inspire creativity into their own lives as well.
Get your own dose of BALLET 422, in your hometown. View the schedule of the film's city dates here.
The critics' response has been overwhelmingly positive, do you think this is a sign of new avenues for the classical art form?
The critical and audience response has been amazing, we couldn't have hoped for a better outcome. We were lucky that we were able to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival and that the film was picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures. We didn't dream that a small doc like this would be theatrically released nationwide, it's so rare these days. Hopefully this means that festivals and distributors, whether traditional or new, see that there is an audience for this and there will be more opportunities for projects like this in the future.
Where can audiences see Ballet 422 next?
The film is rolling out nationwide, you can see the list of cities and dates at ballet422movie.com. Hopefully after that we'll have DVD and digital distribution, but it's a really great experience to see this movie in a theater, because you just feel immersed in the world. If you've never been backstage at a major performing arts institution, the experience of watching the film in a movie theater will really take you there.
What’s next for the team of Ballet 422? Is there another movie in the works?
This project was a really happy accident, that came about very genuinely, and hopefully that will happen again. NYCB is always trying new things, taking risks, on stage and off. I think it's safe to say there will be more interesting projects in the future.
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures