An Unlikely Partnership: Reinventing Swan Lake

photo: Cecil Sanders

photo: Cecil Sanders

Developing audiences, deepening engagement and expanding creative horizons are some of the biggest concerns of the leaders we work with at National Arts Strategies. With increasing entertainment options and access to technology, organizations feel the need to make their work more innovative and appealing to modern consumers, but many struggle in figuring out how to do so. For some, exploring new forms of collaboration can be the answer to remaining relevant and competitive in today’s environment.

Earlier this year, Ballet Memphis Founding Artistic Director and CEO Dorothy Pugh found herself exploring this very question. She needed to increase revenues and expand her existing audience, but she wasn’t sure of the best approach. Her team had proposed putting on Swan Lake always a cash cow for the Ballet – but she couldn’t help but think, “Boring!” True, Swan Lake is a classic: beautiful, heart-breaking and one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire. But Pugh wasn’t interested in presenting a popular piece just to earn revenue (they had their annual Nutcracker for that). She wanted a new way to connect with her community. Something different. Something bold. But what?

Meanwhile, Keith Winsten, executive director of Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida, found himself with his own dilemma: the animals were getting restless. Resigned to stand around and entertain passersby, they longed to break out of their habitats and try something new.  The monkeys were starting to scream a little too much, the jaguar’s roars were starting to scare child visitors. But the real challenge was the swans. Tired of birdfeed and breadcrumbs, they longed to spread their wings and show their true glory in a venue where they could be appreciated by those who could recognize the exquisite beauty of their physique. The black swan had become particularly aggressive, and zookeepers were very concerned with finding it a new outlet for its pent up energy. Winsten also had his own financial and audience-related concerns. Municipal funding was down, and he wanted to make the experience of visiting Brevard Zoo something more memorable and engaging, something to inspire another visit. He wanted Brevard Zoo to offer something unique among the living collections, and open visitors’ eyes to the amazing world of these animals. With Disney World just an hour away, he needed to create his own magical kingdom in order to remain competitive.

Neither Pugh nor Winsten was quite sure how to address their respective challenges until they found themselves sitting in a Harvard Business School classroom last January, discussing cross-disciplinary collaboration with a group of colleagues in The Chief Executive Program. Throughout the program, they’d heard calls for thinking outside the box, doing something new and adapting what they offered to today’s more demanding consumers. Over lunch, they shared a bit about their predicaments when suddenly something clicked. As Pugh discussed looking for a new take on Swan Lake, Winsten recalled how the Zoo’s black swan was one of the most popular creatures (interest in swans had skyrocketed following the movie Black Swan). “What you really need is an actual black swan, that’d certainly spice up your production!” joked Winsten. Pugh laughed, but she started thinking:

My company members could surely learn to better emulate the swan by working with and watching actual swans. A Swan Lake in partnership with real swans could be just the thing they need and would be a great way to continue this season’s theme of ‘Taking Flight.’”

When she pitched her idea to Winsten, he was a bit hesitant but thought,

“We already embrace the arts at the zoo anyway. Art of Sand is wildly popular, and we are looking for a new way to present the animals that would give them and the visitors a more engaging experience.”

They decided to explore the idea and figure out if there was a way they could partner. Building a southern regional partnership such as this might open new doors for both parties – they’d each be able to offer something new and engaging to their audiences, experimenting in this way would make them eligible for new types of funding and innovation grants and they could set an example for the field of how two seemingly incompatible disciplines could successfully work together. Upon Pugh’s return to Memphis, she engaged her team in discussion about the new work. Was there some way they could work with the swan handlers to learn more about their movement styles, then incorporate that into a piece for dancers and swans? After getting the Ballet’s instructors and choreographers on board, the newly energized team traveled to Melbourne to begin experimenting.

At first, things were a bit rocky. The swans, not used to interacting so closely with humans, took a bit of time to adjust to having other long necked friends in their environment. Once they realized the dancers weren’t a threat to their food sources, however, things settled down quite a bit. The dancers felt somewhat out of place without mirrored walls in which to watch themselves stretch but soon realized that the delight of zoo visitors who caught a glimpse of their work helped them monitor if the movements were right. In the ballet, the prima ballerina reigns supreme over the corps. Because the swans had their own pecking order, merging these two class systems was somewhat challenging. The Coscoroba swans eventually found the Ballet Memphis corps de ballet to be their allies, while the prima ballerina and the black swan used this competitive energy as fuel for their performances as the dueling Odette and Odile.

There were administrative considerations, as well. United Zoological Animals Local 231 provided a list of concerns and guidelines meant to ensure the swans were protected during the project. While they championed new opportunities for the birds, they did want to ensure that the birds’ safety and well-being as well as compensation for this new work were priorities, and the Zoo agreed to fully invest in bird safety during the project. The American Guild of Musical Artists, which represented the dancers, also had concerns about the ballerinas working in the conditions of the zoo. This change of venue required new considerations for footwear and equipment, and compensation equitable with that of the increases granted to the swans. The organizations agreed to the unions’ requests as a sign of their commitment to the well-being of both the animals and the dancers. With these initial concerns addressed, it was decided that Swan Lake was a go.

Pugh did have some lingering worries, however.  With a premiere in Melbourne, interest and excitement would be too far removed from her local community. Even if they were successfully able to adapt the work to their Memphis venue, Memphians wouldn’t get to see the work first and might feel cheated. Her team would need to find a way to make the project accessible to the Memphis community. They were working to produce a simulcast of the event in Memphis, but they’d need to go further if this Swan Lake was really going to drive ticket sales and cultivate new audiences. Meanwhile, business was booming at the Zoo. Attendance was up from the previous quarter, with tourists and locals alike clamoring to see rehearsals of this work in progress. By Winsten’s account, the partnership was a wild success so far. But was the partnership more beneficial for Melbourne? Was Ballet Memphis getting out of this what they’d set out to achieve, or were they simply providing a service to another organization?

Instead of letting this tension and apparent inequity damage their relationship, Winsten and Pugh remembered that they’d considered all aspects of the partnership and ironed out what each would get out of this collaboration before they started work, so they went back to their agreed upon project plans to remind themselves of their respective commitments and goals. After some initial confusion among zoo staff about what Pugh meant by branding, it was decided that the project needed to have a stronger identity that made it clear the work was a joint effort of both organizations. They also re-confirmed that revenues from the production would be equally split and that both were responsible for an equal share of fundraising.

While Winsten saw a more immediate rise in visitors, Pugh’s team did notice that their social media engagement was up. On the publicity of the project alone, the spring gala had sold out and season subscriptions for next year were already tracking ahead of the previous five seasons. And, some of the new subscribers had never even attended a Ballet Memphis production! Pugh hoped these indicators meant that this collaboration would generate a new wave of donors and ticket buyers, but she needed to make sure they could sustain this level of interest after Swan Lake closed. Observers had commented that the ballerinas had never looked more graceful, and zookeepers noted a marked improvement in animal temperament.  Pugh and Winsten decided that, pending any disaster with the run of Swan Lake, they would move forward to develop a new production of Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals next year and also begin commissioning smaller pieces that could travel more easily to schools and venues around Memphis and Melbourne to further deepen engagement and develop customer loyalty. There was even mention of a potential merger in the future, should all go according to plan. The project’s impact wasn’t limited to the two organizations, either. The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau noticed that tourism from Floridians was up and, inspired by these developments, began working with Visit Florida to establish their own new partnership: a sister city program with Melbourne.

National Arts Strategies is immensely proud to bring you this story of innovation, borne from the openness and collaboration of two bold and fearless cultural leaders in our Chief Executive Program. By approaching this entirely new kind of partnership responsibly – carefully considering all aspects before deciding to move forward, recognizing where to make adjustments, managing challenging situations and making plans to sustain the benefits of the partnership – these leaders have both positioned their organizations to have lasting relationships with a whole new set of audiences. Are you open to challenging your form or discipline? How might you break the mold to make your organization more relevant to future audiences?

Swan Lake opens today in Melbourne, with a simulcast for the Memphis community at The Orpheum. The production will run through April, and plans to release a DVD of the performance are in the works. Click below to watch a preview of this bold new production of Swan Lake by Ballet Memphis and the Brevard Zoo.



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