Ballet Business | How to work with the media
In an earlier feature, How to get into ballet, I outlined the early stages of a ballet career and some of the pitfalls you might want to watch out for. As part & parcel of your professional ballet career – a visual art form – photographs of you could (and hopefully, will) end up in the media – here on Ballet News and elsewhere. That’s one of the most important ways that the general public gets to know about you, and that helps build connections. Photographs are powerful tools and used properly can enhance your media profile. As a professional ballet dancer, they are essential.
I’m not saying that you can’t have a career in ballet without having to deal with the press/media. You can, and some dancers do. I am saying that you reduce your media profile, and in a competitive field such as ballet it’s good business practice to leverage the right tools.
If you think it’s okay to have a lower media profile, have a think about which dancers are invited to guest star in lucrative ballet galas. They’re technically good; maybe equally as good as other dancers. What marks them out to the promoter is one thing beyond talent : the ability to sell tickets. Why can they do that ? The ticket-buying public know their names : they have a high media profile. And how did that happen ? You can be sure it’s down to media coverage.
Media coverage and your role models
Where would you be if journalists never wrote about you/published photographs of you/interviewed you/chose you for photo shoots and so on ? What about lucrative ad campaigns ? Being the poster boy or girl for an upcoming in-house production ? Collaborations with famous photographers or fashion designers or film-makers ? Any dancer who gets exposure through photography and/or filming is better known to the public. After all, isn’t that how you got to know your role models ?
If you’re working for a ballet company – a word about the company. Don’t expect them to be on the same page as you with regard to media coverage. They aren’t there to help you per se, they are working for the overall image of the company.
Take a look at the two posters advertising ballet productions. Understand what’s important to the ballet company.
What’s important is demonstrated in this order : the production, in huge letters, then the choreographer and then with equal or lesser billing, the company itself. If the dancers in the posters are credited at all, it’ll be in tiny letters buried in the small print at the bottom. Even dancers of the calibre of Darcey Bussell & Carlos Acosta, as you can see.
So don’t expect your ballet company’s agenda to be the same as yours.
In this clip from BBC Breakfast, taped on 4th October 2012, the current Royal Ballet Artistic Director, Kevin O’Hare, responds to a question about whether or not the company is making a conscious effort to make stars of their dancers beyond the ballet bubble : and his answer to the question was that there had to be a balance between “the company” and “the dancer.”
If you need further convincing, take a look at the poster for the Royal Ballet’s production of The Prince of the Pagodas. The dancers names are not on the poster. Anywhere. What you see is the production, the choreographer and the company. And this time, the photographer gets a credit.
Digital media advances all the time and will give you more coverage, more quickly and in greater depth than print press (newspapers and magazines), where space is very limited, especially when it comes to ballet, and lead times (the time it takes between commissioning/writing and publishing a feature) are often long – over 2 months in some cases. There’s room for both, and there will always be those who favour one over the other, but there is a choice and it’s worth taking the time to consider how you’d like your profile to develop.
Photographs of you are a vital promotional tool and produced intelligently will work hard for you all the way through your career and that’s why I want to cover this subject now.
Something I come across regularly is how relatively un-media savvy dancers can be, and that’s often through no fault of their own. It isn’t covered in school, enough. We’ve got the internet, social media and news 24/7, so really, can you afford to be out of the loop or miss out on promoting yourself ?
I’m going to outline some of the things you can do for yourself to boost your media profile.
Want proof that it works for you ?
Olivia Cowley is a soloist with The Royal Ballet. Whilst in the corps de ballet, Cowley decided to reveal her day as a dancer on twitter, under the hashtag #adayinthelifeofacorpsballerina, using 140 character tweets and photographs that included her lunch, her headdress changes and her class and rehearsals. She had a performance in the evening and tweeted right up until she got home and was icing her feet. The following day she answered questions that had come in while she was working. The result ? She gained around 1000 followers. Cowley tweets as @damegrace and I recommend you read the tweets she published during the day which are still available on twitter. At the same time, think about how twitter could work for you, and what you could offer your followers that will make you stand out. Cowley said that she never imagined it would be so popular. If you’re at school then you will need to seek permission. You will need to be mindful of the rules of the school; in particular not photographing other students or members of staff without their permission.
Ballet training does, to a degree, lean towards turning out pliable, receptive, attentive and agreeable dancers. Now I’m all for good manners but the years spent almost institutionalised within a vocational ballet school can turn out a mindset unaccustomed to standing out. Indeed, if your goal is to be in the corps de ballet then standing out is not the aim at all. But that doesn’t stop you from working on your public profile, which could help you gain funding, find help with mentoring or coaching and teach you valuable skills about promoting yourself in a competitive industry.
More and more dancers are now brilliantly clued up about promoting themselves – and as I said at the top, these are probably the dancers you know best. I’ve already mentioned Olivia Cowley, but Royal Ballet Principal Steven McRae tweets as @_stevenmcrae and Claudia Dean tweets as @claudiaballet. Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet tweets as @TamaraRojo1. Northern Ballet’s up and coming dancer/choreographer Kenneth Tindall tweets as @Tindallkenny. Brooke Lockett, an artist with The Australian Ballet tweets as @brookelockett. Maria Kochetkova, a Principal with San Francisco Ballet, tweets as @balletrusse, Ashley Bouder, Principal with New York City Ballet tweets as @ashleybouder and Daniil Simkin, a Soloist at American Ballet Theatre, has his own website, facebook feed and tweets as @daniil. The list goes on – and these dancers all know the value of promoting themselves via twitter, facebook and other social media. You should too.
But don’t sing your own tune exclusively
A caveat : in PR terms the story is always stronger if it’s told independently. Suppose you’ve decided to make a video about yourself. You can share the links all over social media, and you should. But the content, and within it, the information about you, will always be stronger if it comes from someone else. So while you work on your profile, remember that media professionals know what they’re doing and they can help you. Get to know the work and writing style of journalists because that will help you decide who best to work with (where you have a choice).
Your ballet career may put you into the media spotlight at some stage, so what’s it all about ?
As I alluded to in my article referenced earlier, your individuality and character are key when it comes to shaping your career and your route out of the Corps de Ballet. I know that some dancers are happy to remain a Corps dancer all their career, and the Corps are of course the absolute backbone of any professional company and massively valuable, plus it’s a crucial time for young dancers to learn their craft; but I also recognise a hunger in most dancers to progress to higher ranks, and pretty sharpish too. But that’s not easy.
The tiny number of dancers who have made it into the company attached to their school are the best of their year, and they join a company already filled with the best graduates from every year before (and after) them. If that’s you – wow ! You’re well and truly living the dream. But don’t get side-tracked. Already, you’ll be aware that your career is short. Maybe focusing on your dancing takes up all of your energy – but how you appear in the press is going to take on greater significance as you progress towards the top. The bank of images of you that are available to the media will hopefully grow over time, and you want all of those images, even (perhaps especially) the early ones, to be quality ones.
If you’re a dancer, I want you to think about the value of your image. YOUR image. Have you thought about who is in control of that image while you are working ? Is it you ? Or your employer ? Have you signed away all rights to a say in how you are presented in the media ? Would you do that in any other field of work ? And how are you going to present this material ?
You probably won’t have a lot of say about how much you get paid for filming work – that’s usually been agreed by the union if you’re a member but keep in mind that it may be less than the market rate. If you want to negotiate your own independent deals outside the company, make sure your contract allows for that, and if it doesn’t, negotiate its inclusion because you want to make the most of your short career and take every opportunity that appeals to you. Most ballet companies allow dancers to do whatever they want to in their own time and there is usually a process in place by which to let the company know. Don’t depend on the ballet company to promote you in the press – their agenda is not usually the same as yours. Think about how many ballet dancers in any one company are featured in the press in any given year. In a large company such as The Royal Ballet, for example, currently, there may be two dancers featured in their World Stage series and a scattering of interviews in the press, usually with dancers they want to promote. How much opportunity for exposure does that give you this year or next ? What sort of exposure do you want ? Watch this video showing the preparation behind Royal Ballet Sarah Lamb’s photo shoot for their World Stage series.
The press around Royal Ballet Principal Sergei Polunin’s sudden resignation should have alerted you to the possibility that you might become a ‘brand’ – part of the furniture of the company you work for, rather than the focus being on you. Your own identity is your route to success in your career and in the media. As you progress through the ranks you may find yourself with more time between performances and you might want to use that time to appear in Galas around the world as well as photo shoots and other opportunities. Promoters will need photographs of you to sell tickets in advance of the Gala and they may be used widely throughout that country’s media. Do you have performance/portrait images that are relevant ? You’ll know if you are dancing a piece that could be Gala-friendly, so try to think ahead & get some images that you can use in future if you dance that piece again, in a Gala. Contact me if you’re not sure how to do this.
Please don’t wear black!
Your first brush with photographers may well have been to produce your audition portfolio at school. You may think that those photographs will only ever be attached to your applications and never published – but early on in your career, they may be all you have (check the rights to the image as not all of them can be used for press purposes). I have sometimes published audition photographs with interviews I’ve done with young dancers, because that was all that was available. I don’t think that audition photographs are all that appropriate once you’ve graduated and are working in a professional company – you’re no longer auditioning so why would you want to promote a student image of yourself ? So think about that transition and don’t assume that you’ll be a Principal before the press want to feature you – or that you’ll want to fix projects of your own.
Even though the image is of you, you will not, in almost all cases, own the copyright to any photographs in which you feature. They belong to the person who took them. Copyright is a big issue with legal terms and conditions that vary around the world; I can’t cover the laws in every country here so for now what’s important is to realise that any images of you taken by someone else will almost always belong to that photographer and you may not do whatever you like with them (yes, that includes putting them on facebook or sharing them on other social media sites – even if you include a credit/link, because that’s not enough; what you need is permission from the copyright owner before you do anything with the images). Copyright infringements can be expensive so please think about who the work belongs to. Most photographers don’t give up copyright of their work and so they licence an image to you under particular circumstances – even if you’ve paid for them. Even then, it’s polite to credit the photographer, even if it’s not stipulated. Most likely you will have paid for the rights to one copy of the images for use under the terms and conditions set out by the photographer. For example, an audition portfolio is just that – even when you’ve paid for the portfolio it’s usual that the images can only be for the purposes of auditioning.
Press calls and dress rehearsals
Within a ballet company, a photographer who attends press calls, dress rehearsals etc will usually have signed an agreement with the company limiting the use of the photographs. Usually they’ll be quite a few press photographers invited and they work under the terms of their contract (if they have one) – some will sell image rights to newspapers and other media; one will usually be the ‘house’ photographer who is under contract to provide (in some cases, exclusive) images to the company. In these circumstances it is hard for you to exert any control over your image or the use of it – but you are free to visit the marketing department and see what images they hold of you and how they are used. Are you happy with them ? Are there things you can learn from them, and do differently next time ?
At dress rehearsals and stage calls where photographers are present, even if you have the option, don’t turn up in half a costume and no make-up. This is your chance to look polished and professional on camera. An image that looks as close to a performance as possible is going to have the greatest value in terms of promoting you (and probably the greatest commercial value to the photographer). Backstage and studio rehearsal shots are very interesting for the public but they won’t be the images you see on posters and brochures, promoting performances and galas.
I have been working in this specialised field for years and I have worked with & observed many different photographers. You might be surprised to learn that there is no formal ‘professional’ qualification for photographers. There is no industry recognised qualification; no minimum standard required. Anyone can pick up a camera and call themselves a ‘professional photographer’ so don’t place any emphasis on the word ‘professional’ and instead, look at the photographer’s portfolio for clues about their photographic talent. Ballet is a very particular, very technical art form. It’s taken you years to get where you are now and to know a thing or two about it, and I bet you’re still not happy with your standard all of the time! Even assuming some form of training in photography, that doesn’t qualify a photographer to be accomplished in ballet photography. A long-standing knowledge of ballet is necessary to achieve great ballet photographs. I’ve seen ‘dance’ photographers, who cover contemporary dance and other genres, photograph ballet from the wrong angles. For example, contemporary dance is very much into the floor; ballet is the opposite. Check that the photographer you’re working with is right for you.
Picture editors don’t always have much interest/knowledge of ballet and rely on a selection of photos submitted by a photographer – don’t rely on editors, who have the final say, to spot the best image of you that reflects the technicalities of ballet 100%. That’s where your choice of photographer will have been crucial.
Watch this short video featuring photographer Angela Sterling. Sterling explains how she got into photography and I’m highlighting it because she is not the first ex-dancer I’ve come across who has bemoaned the lack of quality images taken during her lengthy dancing career. You should not assume that your employers will have picked the best photographers – you’d hope so but here is evidence that it’s not always the case. I’m drawing on real life situations here – last year a ballet dancer got more exposure than she bargained for in the mainstream press when both the photographer (who submitted the images) and the editors (who process them for the publication) missed a crucial detail that shouldn’t have been visible.
Have a look at this feature I wrote about how photography can also help as a tool in the rehearsal studio, if you are practicing for an up-coming solo, gala or competition piece.
What can you do ? Take the initiative ! When negotiating your contract, if there are particular photographers that you’d prefer to work with on photo shoots or promotional material for the company, ask to have their name written into the contract. Break new ground! Some photographers are great at audition portfolios; some excel with portraits or backstage reportage and others know how to overcome the often meagre onstage lighting in dress rehearsals to really show you off at your best in motion.
There’s always more you can do too. I can think of only one professional ballet dancer who truly broke out of the ballet bubble and made a name for herself in the mainstream media. Indeed, she was so often the only dancer people had heard of that they always asked to see her performances when buying tickets. She is of course, Darcey Bussell, ex Principal dancer at The Royal Ballet. Think of all the campaigns/modelling/promotion she has done in the media. Think of how she’s still, really, the only ballet dancer to have crossed into the mainstream like that. Who remembers Darcey Bussell’s shoot for Caroline Baker at The Sunday Times with leading photographer Anthony Crickmay, or the leather, Avengers-style catsuit she wore in support of the Everyman charity, or the Valentino haute couture black organza ruffle edge cocktail dress from 1971 once owned by Audrey Hepburn which she modelled in 2009 ?
Don’t you want to have that kind of sales draw and public profile, making you irresistibly employable to professional companies the world over ?
On the other hand, people are drawn to take up photography from all walks of life – and those from the creative fields may have a keener eye for ballet photography. Paul Smith had Designs on Dance when he collaborated with Principal dancers from The Royal Ballet. The commission came about because Principal dancer Steven McRae is a big fan of Paul Smith’s menswear and approached him directly. The photographs themselves received a generally lukewarm response though; it seems common sense but do check the portfolio of the photographer you are working with to achieve your goals.
Once you’ve started to gather your photography portfolio, it’s time to think about how best to present it to interested parties. I recommend you use Dropbox to store your photographs in a format that is easy to send and widely used. This way you can store large files and send them around the world by email without clogging up inbox’s. If you want to be really media-savvy then have two files, one of the full-sized image files that might be 15-20mb each, and one with internet ready sizes which are much smaller. Print media tends to use the large files so that the resolution is true in print, whereas websites and digital media tend to use small files. Make sure you have captioned the images with any required information – such as the photographer, other dancers and the production. Some people make a Word doc for this information but you’ll save editors a lot of time if you caption the images directly.
Think about opportunities that may come your way (or that you can create) that will show you off at your best and reach new audiences. Do you want to be thought of and seen more in a particular role ? Something that is coming up in the rep that you haven’t been cast for, or hope to be cast in ? Get some professional photographs of yourself in full costume and make-up if you can get access to an authentic costume and get that image in the press and in front of people with influence to make it happen. Contact me if you need help with this.
One of the best things you can do to help yourself is to always have a portfolio of up to date professionally taken photographs of yourself, dancing and in portrait (don’t underestimate the value of an interesting head shot that really tells a story about you).
Ballet photographers who are really excellent at what they do are like hens teeth – massively rare.
If you need advice about who to work with, please do get in touch. I wouldn’t recommend photographers I haven’t personally worked with, because it’s as much about their method of working as it is about the finished result, and let’s face it, in ballet we are particular!
Have a look through Ballet News and see the range of photographic styles available – just like ballet dancers, each photographer has a particular signature if you look for it.
Value your image. Create opportunities for yourself. Take up offers from those who can help to promote you & come up with your own ideas too.
Self promotion is not a dirty word. You aren’t going to be blacklisted because you dared to value yourself. People may even admire your tenacity and go-getting spirit!
Are you worried about what your colleagues will think of you ? Think of it this way : what if the project is a major success, makes you look fantastic, encourages more people get to see your work and everyone benefits ? Isn’t the whole point of working in a visual art form to be seen ?
Look your best at all times. Pick the best photographers and have lasting images to be proud of. Don’t assume that anyone else will do that for you.
Earlier in this article I said I’d give you my top tip that you could be working on right now. Instagram. Instagram is all about pictures. The name comes from the old Polaroid cameras which produced ‘instant’ photos mixed with ‘snapshots’ that you send over the wire to others, called ‘telegrams’. Do you have an iPhone ? Anyone with an iPhone or iPod touch running iOS 3.1.2 and above can use Instagram. Download the Instagram App and create an account for yourself. There are currently 11 different custom filters to transform the colours, mood, border, and tonality of your photos, and you can use photos from your camera roll too. Why did Instagram create filters ? Because mobile photos often look so-so and they wanted to transform your snaps and make them professional-looking while making the most of smartphone technology – your iPhone probably has one of the best point-and-shoot cameras available. You literally snap a photo with your iPhone, then choose a filter to transform the look and feel of the shot into a memory to keep around forever. The team behind Instagram say “we’re building the platform to allow you to experience moments in your friends’ lives through pictures as they happen. We imagine a world more connected through images of what happens around them – whether through friends or people across the world.”
So, which professional dancers are using Instagram at the moment ? There’s a long list including the dancers I mentioned earlier : (Bouder/Kochetkova/Simkin), and to give you an idea : Carling Talcott (Royal Danish Ballet), Dylan Gutierrez (Joffrey Ballet), James Whiteside (Boston Ballet), Madison Keesler (San Francisco Ballet).
Instagram is a great place to share photographs in a way that’s fast, beautiful, quirky and really popular. It’s also quite addictive, I warn you !
Have fun with it and be media-savvy!