Sensorium: Towards a Total Art

Like a typographer who conjures letterforms by sculpting the points of a curve around a conceptual space, I stood at my drafting table and drew and redrew the body, searching for some essential idea hidden in the vocabulary of the human form.

I’m arrogant in most areas of art-making, but humble when it comes to ballet: The history is rich, the vocabulary nuanced, and the opportunities for expression are only augmented by the limitations of tradition.

As a visual artist, I’m an outsider in the world of dance, even though I’ve created costumes and sets for some of the world’s most enduring ballet companies. Ballet dancers and choreographers have spent their entire lives dedicated to their art, so my short decade in the field means I’m only at the beginning of my apprenticeship.

I can, however, finally see the difference between a poorly placed foot and an extraordinary one. And I can just now start to see how the hips of one moment foretell the turn of the next. But the first few years were rough — I just couldn’t see what was good and what was weak and what was sublime. For a long time, it all looked just fine to me.

So recently when I teamed up with San Francisco Ballet to create a one-night-only event on the main stage at the War Memorial Opera House, we choose the unreasonable challenge of trying to introduce ballet to a new audience. This art form has taken me ten years to start to grasp, how could I possibly try to give a taste in just one night?

Our solution was embrace ballet’s strengths. We would introduce ballet to a new audience by showing it’s strengths while guiding people along an emotional journey, rather than trying to explain the art or “teach” it.

Instead of talking down to people through education,
we would talk up to people through inspiration.

We tossed away any tactics that dumbed-down the art or insulted the audience and instead welcomed the idea of giving a group of people a chance to fall in love with dance for the first time.

Did we pull it off?

In the end, the night brought in a packed house, a young audience, electric energy, and some first-rate dance. The crowd was younger, more diverse, and genuinely excited to be there. Ticket sales exceeded all reasonable expectations, and by the end, we had to open up the upper-upper balcony to accommodate the overflow.

Here is the story of the event, step-by-step, told through actual Tweets from the days leading up to the show through last call.

Our first secret? Instead of just focusing on the show, we had the comity to consider everything around the experience — from the lighting in the lobby to the sounds you hear when you first walk in, to how we opened with video animations and a guided emotional journey, all the way to a surprise basement dance party after the show. The audience doesn’t stop seeing or hearing when the curtain falls, so why shouldn’t we consider those moments as an important part of the experience of the art?

Also, a big part of what I’ll describe below will sound to some like marketing. And that’s a great thing! The expert marketing team at SFB did a super job bringing this all together — it’s foolish to think that as artists we should pretend that “shows just happen” or that an “audience will just show up.” If you want a new audience, you have to go out and get one. This behind-the-scenes look spills the beans on some of the hand-to-hand tactics used to meet an audience where they live and bring them to your event.

Before the show

The experience started weeks before the curtain went up. We started with a teaser website. In designing the site we hoped to achieve three things:

  1. The site would feel urgently relevant to contemporary aesthetics.
  2. The site would employ motion or animation — because ballet is not a static art.
  3. The site would work equally well on mobile and desktop

The normal schemes for placing video in the background of a site fail on iPhones, as iOS blocks auto-playing. The solution was to replace the videos with highly compressed animated gifs.

See the website here: sensoriumdance.com and grab the corner and resize your browser for the full effect.

Next the SFBallet marketing team warmed up influencers in their existing younger audience list by sending the site to them in advance of the actual launch and allowing them to pre-order tickets and invite friends.

We then started teasing out the experience on social media. Our goal was to entice a new audience, not just to get the word out to the existing patrons, so we sent glimpses of the experience and teasers about what would make the night different from a normal night at the ballet. Here’s a sample Tweet showing a behind-the-scenes sketch.

Added to the public social media, were Tweets and mentions and DMs to people who might be interested, but have never been to the ballet. I started by contacting friends who were interesting people, but had never been to the ballet. We started a conversation as to why they hadn’t been.

The results were intelligent and focused. There indeed were actual reasons why young, fun, intelligent, artistic and thoughtful people didn’t go to the ballet. It wasn’t out of laziness, it was often an active choice —as something else had always felt like a better, more appropriate, more useful, more enjoyable, more productive, or more civically responsible use of their time.

One friend dubbed this the “Lamborghini Principle” meaning that Lamborghinis are nice, but there would always be something more important to spend their money on, even if they had enough money that price no longer mattered.

It turns out young people weren’t staying away just because of price, or perceived price —although our lowered ticket price did help us sell out and open our doors to a wider range of audience members — but also because of the cultural opportunity cost. The challenge then became to make the night the best choice for a young, fun, complex, interesting person to make for how she or he would way to spend their time that particular night.

My goal became to enticed/seduce people to give this special night a try. I took notes as to what concerns people might have in our potential audience and plotted how to overcome the obstacles. For instance, one of the common questions was “what do you wear?”

Instead of giving a flip answer, we tried to show the answer by tweeting photos of people looking sharp and offering in the tone of our social feed a vibe that matched the vibe of the night.

Doors open

Through the glass doors of the War Memorial Opera House, you could see an enthusiastic mob starting to press closer to the velvet ropes, pointing at the video installations and trying to take pictures through the glass. We opened the doors, and welcomed a younger, attractive and more diverse crowd that the ballet usually gets.

We transformed the lobby with purple lights and looping video projections that showed the vibrancy of ballet without “teaching” you about it.

We balanced the purple lights and videos with a classical quartet. This helped give a vibe of admixture: classic vocabulary + urgently contemporary culture.

I originally had visions of designing a complete spatial experience in the lobby, but in the end, working with the superb events team at SFB, we found we could create the mood with just lights and a touch of video.

It sounds unlikely, but ask any lighting designer and they’ll confirm that they can create a mood on stage even without a set. We used light to create the feeling of anticipation, emotional excitement and thrilling art.

Curtain Up

When the show started, the artistic and production teams at SFB worked out a seamless flow that meant we always kept the mood focused on the art even though we were trying out some very unorthodox ideas.

The first radical break from tradition was to open with a visual overture — this was a video animation I made by taking clips of the actual ballets that would be seen on stage that night, but then animating the forms to create abstractions that you could just make out as coming from the original. The music was a recording of the first piece the audience would hear that night, but slowed down to sound like an abstract, textural, tonal drone.

While the video played, I welcomed the audience and started them on their emotional journey. As the overture ended, the production team again seamlessly blended the mood to prepare for the first piece.

Untouched Ballets

Next, we saw two ballets. Both were untouched. The worst thing we could have done was to try to mess with the actual ballets. We left the choreographer’s work alone.

I can’t show pictures of the actual ballets from the night, but they were lovely — and had just the right effect — to hypnotise the audience to falling in love with dance —either for the first time or all over again.

After the second ballet, we kept the cellist on stage and offered a moment of audience participation through a #HopeCadenza.

In classical music, a cadenza is a moment when the soloist improvises based on the piece that she or he has been playing so far. Usually, the rest of the orchestra puts down their instruments for a moment while the soloist goes for it. In our case, we asked the audience to be the soloist and to tweet what they hoped for most in the world, and then we projected that onto the screen. To keep the mood, the cellist and pianist played an additional section of music from the ballet the audience had just seen. We kept some of the hints of the lighting, while doing a nice trick with the projections to give a deep, but dark space.



We then gave the audience a nice long intermission, with enough time so that people could both go to the bathroom and buy a drink. The lobby was electric with excitement.

After Party

After the third ballet, we invited the whole audience to join us for the last surprise: we had transformed the basement into an underground dance club.

The DJ and I wanted it to feel like we had stolen the keys to the opera house and threw an illegal party in the basement to make rent.

Gone were the tasteful snack tables and the mini-sandwiches and seltzer water and in its place was a bar, DJ booth, video projections of dancers looming larger than life like demigods who walk among us.

It was so packed that an impressive lined formed of people trying to get into the “club” and when it was done, long past last call, we had to push people out of the basement they were having so much fun.

Did it work in the end? Did I find a way to overcome the Lamborghini Principle and bring a new audience to the ballet?

Here’s a Tweet from Mr. Lamborghini himself, clowning me pretending to be a star-struck fan.

Will it last? Will people come back to the ballet? Will they tell their friends? What will they remember? Will their lives be more poetic, richer, more poignant because of the experience? Will they be more willing to try the opera, symphony, jazz center, or museums because of this experience? Will they try listening to the contemporary composers we featured or seek out Wheeldon’s work on Broadway the next time they’re in NY?

In the end, we celebrated ballet while not shying away from bleeding-edge contemporary work, challenging music, or classical vocabulary. We showed the achingly beautiful potential of ballet instead of just talking about it. We introduced a new audience to ballet. And we gave people a chance to dance.