A Royal Rabbit-Hole
The Royal Ballet's Online Sector
From the American outside, the Royal Ballet often appears so soaked in historic glory that one’s attempts to render a mental image only result in thoughts of castle walls, saint-like dancers, and thick swaths of velvet. In fact, the company’s actual image comes mighty close: they rest on an endorsement from the most powerful monarchy in the world and bask in the legacies of greats like Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn, and Alessandra Ferri. They may not perform in a castle, but the Royal Opera House is its own sight to behold, complete with a cavernous theater lined with soft red seats and an imposing set of Romanesque columns.
Today, the Royal Ballet’s dancers hail from all across the world, descending on Covent Garden in a collection of the best talent the 21st century can find. Their performances garner international acclaim and attract world-class choreographers, indisputably labelling the organization as one of the most elite ballet companies in the world.
But we already know this. After all, they’re endorsed by the Queen herself. Why continue to write about them as if they need the attention?
They definitely don’t, but they do deserve a well-written thank you. Underneath all this prestige, the organization serves far more purposes than simply high-class performance. The Royal Ballet, housed by the Royal Opera House, sponsors one of the best and most extensive online presences in the ballet world. Their Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts curate ongoing content that serve both to educate and to entertain the dance world on a scale different from any other major ballet company. These accounts hold hundreds of thousands more followers than comparable organizations like New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre and thus spread content across far larger audiences.
Of course, part of this disparity comes from the fact that the Royal Ballet acts as a combined entity with the Royal Opera and with the exception of Twitter, the two companies operate under one social media account. While this combination means the account’s followers come from audiences in ballet and opera, it’s not simple addition. The ROH must work to engage both fan groups simultaneously. It’s a delicate balance between the two mediums, but the proof is in the numbers: it’s clearly working.
In fact, on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the ROH follower count is more than double that of ABT’s.
On YouTube, these differences are even more prolific. The ROH channel holds over 600,000 subscribers and its videos often garner millions of views with hundreds or even thousands of comments. To compare, in reference to ballet’s niche corner of the internet: NYCB’s channel holds only around 80,000 subscribers, and sources like Pointe Magazine have as few as 2,000. Even channels like SuperBalletGirl101 and balletflowers, unverified accounts with prolific libraries of ballet footage, have fewer than 200,000. Channels like Kathryn Morgan and Claudia Dean — two women with experience in professional dance who now create educational content — both hover around 200,000 as well.
Even if we cut their numbers completely in half to explain away their combination with the Royal Opera, the ROH account would still hold more followers than any previously mentioned company. In fact, even if we cut them into thirds, the ROH would still have twice the number of followers than NYCB and ABT combined.
Though the channel has a huge number of pre-made video playlists, the videos can generally be divided into four main sectors:
1. First and largest, the ROH posts hundreds of clips from ballets and operas. The channel’s diversity perfectly matches the range of the company’s onstage repertoire. Marianela Nuñez sparkles in Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty, Ryoichi Hirano convulses in Christopher Wheeldon’s Frankenstein, and Joseph Sissens floats through Charlotte Edmonds’ jojo.
2. Second, the ROH offers extensive behind the scenes footage of classes and rehearsals during the day. They do not shy away from shedding light onto the hard work, heavy breathing, and brute sweat that it takes to create a seamless final product. They are also one of the only companies to show a full ballet class every World Ballet Day since the 24 hour live-stream shared by companies around the world started in 2014. Beyond the performers, the organization occasionally features stage managers and set designers, offering a glimpse at the overwhelming number of moving parts required of a Covent Garden performance.
3. Third, the company offers educational programming on ballet’s history and present. Their Ballet Evolved series consists of 15 separate videos of lectures run by former Ballet Mistress Ursula Hageli. With the demonstration of current company members, Hageli walks the audience through the evolution of ballet starting in the 18th century. The Ballet Glossary playlist contains 32 videos of current dancers demonstrating the basic positions and steps of ballet technique for students or interested audience members. Recently, the channel uploaded an eight-minute video on the psychology of a dancer learning and retaining choreography.
4. The remaining videos make up the company’s marketing, both for specific shows and general attendance. They produce a short trailer before most shows hit the stage along with the occasional longer feature. They interview their employed experts for an Insights series and create Why the Royal Ballet Love Performing segments for shows like Raymonda, The Nutcracker, and Don Quixote. More recently, the channel released a video advertising the accessibility of the ROH’s performance. The one-minute clip is an unprecedented destruction of stereotypes on who goes to the Royal Opera House, featuring characters like boxers, bus-riders, and ball-players.
All of this content comes together in one beautiful effect: increasing the world’s understanding and access to ballet and dance. For students, these materials contextualize the longer-term goals of a daily technique class. For audience members, the videos further one’s understanding of the art form, just like the behind-the-scenes footage of one’s favorite movie. For non dance-goers, the channel’s presence sparks interest in an art form that can often seem removed from the real world. These videos thus serve to break boundaries and create a new image of what ballet audiences can look like in the 21st century.
Of course, a big part of this democratization lies in the content’s cost – completely free and available on platforms consumers are already familiar with, like YouTube. How, and why, do they do it?
In part, the bottom line lies in dollar signs. Or euros, if you will. Much of the ROH’s funding comes from Arts Council England, an organization created through Royal Charter, a historical way of obtaining legal personality from The Queen, in 1946. They receive government funding through the Department for Culture, Media, and Sports and then distribute grants to arts organizations across the United Kingdom. In 2018, the ROH received just over £25 million from ACE. This accounted for almost 20% of their total income for the year.
Once the funding enters the ROH, it’s up to their internal administration to determine how much goes to the ballet versus the opera. These numbers are hard to find, but regardless — that’s a large chunk of money that doesn’t necessarily exist for other companies, especially in places like the United States where governments tend to turn their noses at the concept of supporting the arts. The New York City Ballet, for example, relies far more heavily on corporate and individual donors. Any funding they receive from the National Endowment for the Arts or even the New York Council for the Arts is far smaller than ACE (and far more difficult to track down).
Even in England, though, the ROH receives almost four times as much funding from ACE as the English National Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.
In part, this has to do with ROH’s historical establishment; between the three ballet companies, the Royal Ballet holds the longest history and most distinctive location. The English National Ballet does not have a Royal Charter and Birmingham Royal Ballet is often thought of as the smaller sister of the Royal Ballet, based in a city far away from the country’s capital.
Given its presence as England’s flagship ballet and opera, then, the ROH enjoys increased attention from the media, fans, and funding sources alike.
This might seem like unfairly preferential treatment, and there are people who argue that it’s time the ROH gave up some of this money to make way for new entities. While on the one hand this may seem like a valid argument, the ROH remains one of the largest artistic employers in the group of organizations supported by ACE. Beyond dancers and singers, the Opera House also provides opportunities to cashiers, ushers, armourers, musicology experts, and so on. All told, it’s an unimaginably large span of careers. When giving the company funding, ACE is thus supporting the largest possible number of employees.
Wrapped up in these vast job opportunities is the ROH’s online sector. Increased funding means more people to design, film, direct, edit, and upload the ROH’s media presence, especially when it comes to YouTube. Their extensive video library — 1,400 videos and counting — tells us that they take this very seriously.
While this online presence may seem like just an attempt to spark interest in fans and increase ticket sales at the Opera House, the videos serve a more important purpose as well. Given its support from the government, central location, and historical significance, the ROH views itself as a public servant instead of a private service provider. In other words, their goals lie in serving the general public, not just the paying audience. As such, they take responsibility for educating and accessing as many people as they can, and YouTube is a big part of this.
Access to live performance, especially for students and younger fans, can be limited. The price of a good ticket or a trip to a faraway stage is often the debilitating factor that keeps younger generations away from the theater. For fans across the world, these videos serve as an exceptional glimpse into the experience of a world-class company. Through a few clips on YouTube, audiences can hear the voices of world-class ballet masters and costume experts. The knowledge provided through this access is unprecedented, especially because it’s free.
This online content is complemented by other ROH programs like the fairly new Royal Ballet Live Cinema Season, in which the company screens a select number of performances in theaters across the globe. For movie theater audiences, these events come with virtual front row seats at Covent Garden and behind-the-scenes featurettes during intermission breaks. The ROH also sponsors London-based programs like matinee performances for schools, classroom screenings of ROH performances, discounted tickets for first-time family audiences, and free lesson plans on the national curriculum for Music, Dance, and Art Design.
Aside from money public service, these programs and videos online presence send one last heartwarming message — that increasing accessibility to dance outside the theater never diminishes what goes on inside. The channel does not shy away from posting videos of their best dancers and choreographers, and they always seem willing to open their rehearsals to cameras and commentators explaining these creative processes. In doing so, their secrets hang out in the open, strewn about over thousands of videos, tweets, posts, and more.
Yet no matter how many mysteries these videos uncover, the beauty of ballet as an art form remains unchanged.
They don’t need to fear repercussions from posting a clip of Romeo and Juliet because they could post the whole ballet and audiences would still fill every red velvet seat at Covent Garden to see the show. They don’t think twice about interviewing the dancers about their preparations for the titular roles, either, because that footage only serves to boost sales, too. In fact, box office receipts made up over 30% of the ROH’s income in 2018.
As they continue to invest in online presences, the heart of this outreach remains grounded in promoting live performance. For this I am grateful both as an eager consumer of content but also for the underlying statement it makes — that in the 21st century, when I can watch anything from the comfort of my own couch, there is still something to be said about getting up and going to the ballet, especially when equipped with the knowledge given to me by the ROH online.
I originally wrote this essay as a Feature Article for the final portfolio assignment of Dance 448 at the University of Michigan, December 2019