When the New York City Ballet's "city.ballet" has its debut Nov. 4 on AOL On, the ballet and AOL are hoping for mutual gains: New York City Ballet reaches a broader audience than it could fit into its entire 21-week season at Lincoln Center, and AOL adds a highbrow program to its web-series lineup.
"City.ballet," developed by Sarah Jessica Parker's production company Pretty Matches and shot by Zero Point Zero, the crew responsible for the aesthetic of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations," follows several dancers in their professional lives, and will be a combination of documentary-style footage mixed with interviews. Ms. Parker, who is also on the New York City Ballet board, will narrate.
The brainchild behind the series, Ms. Parker studied dance as a child in Cincinnati, calls City Ballet her "home team" along with the Yankees, and was seeking a way to expose new audiences to the art form.
She approached Peter Martins, City Ballet's director, with the idea. "I thought that if people understood the ballet—people that think it's a rarefied world, that it's inaccessible—if they came just once, then they would always come back," she said. "I thought it would be interesting for them to really understand a ballet dancer's life."
The next step was convincing the dancers to participate. After all, asked Mr. Martins, what did they possibly have to lose?
"Our dignity," was corps de ballet member Devin Alberda's initial reaction. "I'm nervous. I have the most misgivings out of everyone."
Reality television and classical ballet are indeed strange bedfellows: Ballet is a classical repertory art with an established history in this city, a contrast with the world of "Real Housewives" and "Duck Dynasty." Principal dancer Teresa Reichlen said she initially struggled with the larger implications of allowing the audience backstage. "At the end of the day, you don't want to show the work," she said. "You want it to look effortless, so it's a weird paradox."
Though nervous about how she might come off on camera, Megan LeCrone, a soloist with the ballet, said that the presence of the film crew actually improved her work. "I danced better because someone was watching me."
The show came together last April, when Mr. Martins and four of his dancers met with Ms. Parker and AOL. The company initially had turned down AOL, but Mr. Martins was intrigued by the idea of promoting his company on the video-viewing platform, as well as the creative control that City Ballet would retain.
"We are the platform," said Karen Cahn, AOL's general manager for branded entertainment. "We are not going to get involved creatively here." And because of Ms. Parker's involvement, the company is essentially producing its own show.
Those involved with "city.ballet" are quick to explain that this is a documentary series, rather than a reality show, and that it focuses on the work involved in being a professional dancer rather than on interpersonal drama. They wish to distance the series from "Breaking Pointe," which follows the Utah-based Ballet West. "We don't want 'The Real Housewives of New York City Ballet,' " said Ms. Reichlen.
The dancers themselves have control over when and where they are shot, and they can pull the plug at any time. So as not to distract them, cameras are bundled and even the red recording light is hidden. During performances, only one camera is allowed in the wings.
Despite preparations, producers quickly ran into problems. Filming at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, the ballet's home, has been restricted since the fall season opened last month, largely due to one union's regulations, Ms. Parker's Pretty Matches producing partner, Alison Benson, said. While the camera crew was able to capture some performance footage, to keep costs low, most of "city.ballet" takes place at the neighboring Rose Building—not typically where the company rehearses in the middle of performance season. Mondays, the dancers' day off, has become a regular shooting day.
Another risk is that the show might not translate to increased ticket sales. The first season of "Breaking Pointe" did not lead to a measurable uptick in Ballet West's ticket sales or a change in its audience demographics, the company's director of marketing, John Roake, said.
Still, "city.ballet" dovetails into City Ballet's marketing strategy, its executive director, Kathy Brown, said. "There's a greater connection and greater engagement."
"It's a different era," Ms. Reichlen said. "In Balanchine's age, ballerinas were always in the magazines, and big fashion icons, and that's really gone away and hasn't been replaced yet. This might be a start. We'll see."
Sophie Flack is the author of the young adult novel “Bunheads.” She can be reached at sophie.bunheads@ gmail.com