An innovative production by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, Indigo in Motion, attracted new audiences with a blend of Pittsburgh's jazz heritage and classical ballet, according to this feature article commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. The success also raised the organization’s profile in the community.

Stanley Turrentine, Jiabin Pan and Maribel Modrono
Photograph by Ric Evans

For the opening of its 2002-2003 season, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater (PBT) will once again present the groundbreaking production that redefined its reputation more than two years ago by fusing the traditions of classical ballet with the city's deep jazz roots. Ticket-buyer demand, which reached new heights when the show first opened in 2000, has brought "Indigo in Motion" back to the stage, and once again, the excitement is palpable-for the two city arts organizations whose partnership made the production possible, and for the disparate audiences they brought together.

For more than a decade, PBT has developed a repertoire of dances around themes, myths and legends that have fascinated Americans-from the 1987 production of "Great Gatsby," "Mighty Casey" in 1990, "Ballad of You and Me" with Pete Seeger in 1993, to "Dracula," with the Houston Ballet in 1999. In trying to bring such themes closer to home, PBT managing director Steven Libman kept bumping up against the idea of jazz.

Alexander Nagiba, Jennifer Langenstein, Jiabin Pan and Lauren Schultz in Kevin O'Day's ... on the spot.
Photograph by Randy Choura

"Our research kept bringing us back to jazz and what an incredibly important part of Pittsburgh and the American cultural scene it is," Libman said. "And as part of our strategic planning process, we felt it was important to create a work that related to the vast melting pot of this city and this country."

'This is one of the most successful things I've ever done," said Artistic Director Terrence Orr of the collaboration between PBT and the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, which led to the fusion of jazz with classical ballet. "There is a real commonality between the two mediums, such as the changing rhythms and accents, and although I believe in the classics, I also believe in trying to expand the reach of ballet theater."

Terence Marling and Lauren Schultz in Kevin O'Day's ... on the spot
Photograph by Ric Evans

Creating a New Partnership

In their quest to learn more about the city's jazz traditions, Libman and Orr called Marty Ashby, executive producer of jazz at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild school and performing arts center, and a partnership was born. According to Ashby, PBT's goals align perfectly with the mission of the Guild-that is, to create that which has never happened before.

"I had no experience with ballet, but in my conversations with PBT, I discovered that we're all talking the same language," Ashby said. "'Indigo' translated jazz music into physical passion, which was an amazing experience. It's a collaboration that has opened up what I believe will be a long, fruitful relationship."

This is exactly what PBT had in mind: To create a new kind of ballet that will both foster an understanding of the medium and the growth of new audiences through collaboration with city arts organizations such as the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (see Creating More New Ballets sidebar).

"Our long range goal is to maintain the discipline of traditional ballet in dances, but move beyond story ballets and draw in choreographers to create brand new works," said Kears Pollack, vice chair, PBT board of trustees. "We have an obligation to attract and develop new and younger audiences and give them the opportunity to acquire an appreciation for the arts."

Dance class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theater

Anne Jane Gray, whose family has subscribed to PBT for more than five years and whose two sons study dance with the company, knew little about jazz. She and her husband approached "Indigo in Motion" with a skepticism typical of many other attendees, whether they were drawn primarily because of the ballet or music.

"Sometimes more contemporary work doesn't have much impact and leaves you feeling vacant," Gray explained. "But the music was of such high quality and it was so wonderful to see the dancers do something so totally different, we went back a second time."

According to Gray, the production also enthralled her seatmates, people who loved jazz but had never before attended a ballet.

"We were both blown away, but for completely different reasons," she said.


Ray Brown and the Ray Brown Trio with Stanley Turrentine in Kevin O'Day's ... on the spot.
Photograph by Randy Choura

Finding the Right Mix

"Indigo in Motion" took shape through Orr, who came to PBT in 1997 after working as a dancer and ballet master at the American Ballet Theater. Impressed with the depth and variety of jazz in Pittsburgh, he conceived of three pieces that describe the distinctly different styles and moods of the city's jazz scene- an intimate club quartet, a solo voice and a big band. Orr also chose to represent four of the city's jazz greats-Billy Strayhorn, who contributed more than 200 songs to Duke Ellington's repertoire; singer Lena Horne; bassist Ray Brown, Jr. and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, both longtime members of the Guild.

"I thought the three components were a perfect mix," said Ashby who, as the show's music producer found arrangers to re-orchestrate old songs, produced CDs for the choreographers to work with and hired all the musicians. "The music, which featured some of Strayhorn's most intricate works as well as the lesser-know works of Horne, was accessible to everyone without compromising the knowledge of hard-core jazz patrons. In fact, it did just the opposite."

Ashby also put the event on the Guild's season subscription, an unprecedented move that nonetheless left its subscribers asking for more.

"The public's reaction was unbelievable," he said. "I pinched myself every night."

When the time came for Orr to interview choreographers (see Bringing the Music to Dance sidebar) for the three dances, he found three who hooked right into the music.

"Dwight Rhoden had just finished reading Billy Strayhorn's newly-published biography and I knew that his huge, rich vocabulary and musical movements were perfect for the big band sound," Orr explained. "I wanted to tell Lena Horne's life story, and Lynn Taylor-Corbett was instantly into the idea. And I'd always wanted to work with Kevin O'Day, who already knew, and had, all of Stanley Turrentine's music."

Terence Marling and Lauren Schultz in Lynne Taylor-Corbertt's More Than A Song, a tribute to Lena Horne.
Photograph by Ric Evans

Selling the Show

Despite the high recognition names that would be both on stage and behind the scenes, PBT knew it faced a challenge marketing the mixed repertoire production, a genre which is traditionally less popular than a full-length story ballet. But with more funds than ever committed to branding and selling its new venture, the organization used a variety of media and marketing techniques to target the audiences it sought to interest- traditional ballet goers, jazz enthusiasts, men and African-Americans.

"We used the kind of sophisticated marketing and advertising techniques that are more familiar in the world of for-profit business than in the sphere of arts and cultural organizations," explained Kate Prescott, president, Prescott & Associates, the marketing research company that worked with PBT on this and other earlier projects. "While much of what we did may seem obvious, it's just not how many arts organizations function."

PBT worked first with Agnew Moyer Smith (AMS), a local communication and design firm that took the staff through a creative visioning process to find a name for its new production. Dissatisfied with the tentative title, "Jazz with Pittsburgh Roots," PBT staff knew the name needed to convey a sense of movement, be memorable and easy to articulate, and appeal to a broad public-school age, local, national and international audiences, as well as subscribers, single ticket buyers and non-attendees.

"Indigo in Motion," emerged as the most successful name after six alternate ideas were tested with the different constituents from which the PBT hoped to draw its new audience. The show's subtitle, "A decidedly unique fusion of jazz and ballet," reflects research that drew conclusions about how to attract "consumers who do not typically attend ballet performances, but are interested in jazz."

"The name 'Indigo in Motion' really resonated with our focus groups," said Prescott. "They responded to it with such terms as 'energetic and upbeat,' 'I'm drawn to this one,' 'purple mood, colorful, sexy,' and 'nightlife expressed in dance.' These are the kinds of images and responses we wanted to conjure and that are important when you're trying to attract new audiences."

The firm also used focus groups and conducted one-on-one interviews to determine the impact of different print ads (see Evolution of a Message sidebar). The final ad, which features two dancers, one on pointe in a gesture that frames saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, became the centerpiece of PBT's marketing communications plan, which included publicity, newsletters, print, and radio ads.

"We know that people are not willing to try just because it's ballet, so using the feedback we got, we created the final ad to reflect a balance between dance and music," said Tara Safar, PBT's director of marketing.

Show Time

As the performance approached, ticket sales were steady. Then, the Sunday before the opening, a three-page article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette "pushed sales through the roof."

"We opened to such wide acclaim and every night there were lines around the box office and standing ovations," said Safar. "Journalists referred to it for months to come using such phrases as 'history was made.' It almost seemed bigger than PBT itself."

Post-performance surveys that queried both single ticket buyers and subscribers about their reactions to the performance as well as their recall of ads and publicity, were also critical components of the marketing plan. (View audience reactions*)

"According to our interviews, most people went to the show motivated by jazz or by the idea of jazz and ballet, which means our message got across," said Prescott. " Most people also went in with fairly low expectations but came away saying they were touched in a very personal way, which proves that grounding mixed reps in music that is familiar and dance that is accessible, works."

After the performance, PBT's subscriber renewal rate increased to 72 percent, up from its usual 65 percent, and a follow-up study showed that the organization received the highest recognition factor of all of Pittsburgh's cultural institutions. But with these high numbers came new expectations both from within PBT and its audiences.

"Before 'Indigo' we had a fine track record, but the resources we were able to put into that production, from both a marketing and artistic standpoint, put us over the top," said Libman. "It elevated our prestige in this community tremendously and enabled us, perhaps more than any other arts organization in the city, to take the kind of risks we've been wanting to take."

Continue Reading:

*Requires Real Audio Player or VLC Media Player.