In a word, an American Ballet Theatre performance is an experience. The lavish costumes, the meticulous choreography, the rich storylines and even richer music are what draw some 300,000 people to theaters across the globe every year from Detroit to Abu Dhabi. We're big believers in 'you had to be there,' says Kara Medoff Barnett, executive director of the New York-based organization.
Like many, ABT charged into 2020 expecting a big year. In fact, a banner year. Founded in the early days of World War II, Barnett and her team of about 130 dancers, designers, choreographers, and crew members, were excited to celebrate the company's 80th anniversary, with its signature performances like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker and new works alike. Then, theaters shuttered, their world tour and spring season at New York's Lincoln Center were called off, and suddenly this cultural institution was left wondering what its future would look like.
The theater world's age-old mantra the show must go on has taken on renewed resonance in the age of COVID-19, and ABT chose to embrace virtual performance wholeheartedly, launching a robust content offering on social media channels. Pretty impressive, given that they were starting from scratch.
We recently caught up with Barnett, to learn how she and her team pivoted faster than a pirouette turn and why going online has been a game changer.
Not quite the anniversary year we had in mind.
How has your team responded to all this?
Artists come to ABT because they want to embody the iconic roles. They want to be Juliet, but they also want to work with living artists and create vibrant, resonant works for today. ABT has always attracted dancers who are not only incredible artists and athletes, but compelling individuals and role models and leaders. I think in this time, we've been so blessed and so energized and so catalyzed by the entrepreneurial energy and ingenuity and inventiveness of our artists. They have incredible resilience and optimism and are dreaming up ways to continue to create through crisis.
That's great to hear. You put in so much work preparing for a new season, I imagine there are some broken hearts too.
It's like Olympic athletes getting ready for the competition of their careers and the rug is pulled out. The debut or premiere, that moment, has been deferred, postponed. One thing we've been thinking about a lot as we prepare our artists for their future is not only protecting their physical health but also their emotional health. This time is hard enough for all of us, but when the pandemic delays pivotal career achievements, when it pushes pause on careers that are already extremely short, it's devastating and deflating and incredibly difficult for these extremely dedicated, extremely talented young artists.
How did you begin picking up the pieces?
In the first week of COVID, we came up with our rallying cry: ABT is alone but together. How are we going to prioritize keeping our artists and staff and crew in close communication and forge ahead with purpose and a sense of connectedness? That was our initial focus.
Our second area of focus very quickly became philanthropy. Since ABT is a nonprofit, our business model comprises over half our annual revenue, with ticket sales and touring fees. It became clear there was going to a be a pause there. So we were then left with philanthropy: generous individuals, organizations and corporations. We knew we needed to communicate effectively and energetically with existing funders. Keep our existing friends close and let them know what's happening … and let's make some new friends. Let's find some new fans and sponsors and sources of philanthropic help.
And then there was digital. Eighty years in, American Ballet Theatre never really had an online presence. How did you know it was finally time?
We know how to energize audiences and generate applause, so now we had to look at our digital audience. How can we stay with our mission in a way that's resonant and powerful, where the theater is everyone's living room. I think many performing arts organizations have large libraries of digital content, they've recorded their performances over the years. ABT has not. We're big believers in you had to be there. While we still maintain the live experience and that energy exchange is magical, we also know that the digital stage, content creation and distribution is a way to further our mission, it's a way to amplify our artists' stories. It's a way to touch people who never might walk into the Metropolitan Opera but can still be moved by and inspired by the art form of classical ballet and the humanity of our artists. We are fully embracing the digital pivot. We are accelerating change we already knew was important to the future of the institution. It was kind of theoretical before.
With no experience in the online space, where did you begin?
We had started down the path of telling stories through digital media. However, in this moment, it's like, “OK, let's get in the test kitchen and start to experiment.” We invited everyone in the very early weeks: Bring us your big ideas, whatever you're dreaming up, no matter how wild and crazy it is. Let's nurture these ideas, develop them, make introductions, build some partnerships
We have, I think, the ingredients to build and release into the world some pretty extraordinary new pieces of short films, docuseries, documentaries, podcasts that are conceived by and created by ABT's dancers and ABT's artists.
We also had a project that I found particularly meaningful and poignant called ABT Heals, which was a series of live concerts that ABT musicians performed from their homes for patients and staff at Mount Sinai Hospital. They brought the healing power of the arts into the hospital setting at a time when people in the hospital are extremely lonely, because family isn't let in. It's been really meaningful to the ABT artists.
And in the process, you're expanding your reach even wider?
We want to continue to distribute any digital content we create into settings that wouldn't normally be on our touring circuit. We're reaching people who couldn't come to our theaters, even if they were open.
Like many companies I've seen, the pivots you've been forced to make have actually been good for you. Do you think they will make ABT stronger on the other side of this?
Absolutely. In the COVID silver linings category is the fact that this period has been catalytic in forcing us to address our weaknesses. As a nonprofit institution, we were probably overly reliant on earned revenue. Our brand is strong and we were fortunate to be invited to attractive touring destinations. We were fortunate that audiences were interested in paying top dollar to attend our performances. We had probably underinvested in philanthropy. So strengthening our philanthropic engine has been a silver lining and a necessary change.
And similarly with digital, we talked a lot about the digital pivot and the importance of content creation, but it's only now that we're having conversations with streaming providers, film festivals, major television networks, wireless carriers, and on and on. So I think that there's definitely things that pre-pandemic we would say were nice-to-have and part of the long-term strategic plan have become need-to-have and essential.
What has been the response in the wider world?
It's an exciting time to be out there having conversations and forging new partnerships. The wonderful thing right now is there's an openness to collaboration that I didn't see as much before. I think people were more siloed in their thinking. Now, any corporate leader I reach out to is open to having a conversation. We're calling each other for advice and counsel and there's a collaborative spirit. Everyone is facing such hurdles and challenges, there's a shared humility and shared generosity of spirit that's been really comforting and I do think on the other side of this that sense of camaraderie will go on. I think sometimes, in crisis, you can go to a place of survival of the fittest, but at least in what I've experienced, this has been the opposite: How can we lift one another up, share ideas, introductions, advice, problem solving?
The way you and your team responded to this, I can't help but think of the show must go on. Do you think that rallying cry so inherent to theater is what helped you pivot so effectively?
I do. I think for ABT, which was founded in the shadow of WWII, which has survived so many ups and downs and twists and turns over the course of eight decades, resilience is just part of our DNA. Full pause or hibernation is just not an option that we have seriously considered. We are finding ways, scrappy, scrappy ways, to continue to invent and experiment, and try and fail, and learn and examine how we've done things in the pastand discover ways to do them better. That includes issues of equity and inclusion, that includes all of the ways that we increase access to an art form that historically has been regarded as perhaps inaccessible to some. I think that the show must go on is absolutely the mentality that we have as dancers. Perseverance is one of the essential qualities. Talent won't get you all the way there. It's the perseverance that defines the stars in this field.
With so much on your plate, how are you doing as a person?
I think I'm lucky that I'm a short-term pragmatist but a long-term optimist. I really do wake up every day asking what problems I can solve today, how I can have some small wins today that will ultimately move us toward a thriving ecosystem tomorrow - by tomorrow, I might mean next year. I do think by taking things in bite-size chunks and not letting the massive size of the hurdles in front of us paralyze me, I'm able to close out each day with some gratitude and some sense of accomplishment. I think that I tend to sleep less than the average person, so that's probably good in these times because the demands on leaders right now are endless. Demands for not only making lemonade out of lemons but staying closely connected to all stakeholder groups, the communication and connection with individuals as well as with groups that want to hear your voice can be all consuming.
I am fortunate that I have incredible support from my family, from my husband, and my parents otherwise I don't think we would've survived virtual schooling for three kids under 10. I am very grateful to the family members who have been patient with me and I just remind myself every morning that this company has survived for 80 years and it's not going to die on my watch.