Hello, Charlotte Ballet.
After 44 years as North Carolina’s oldest professional dance company, N.C. Dance Theatre has renamed itself Charlotte Ballet as part of a vast rebranding: bus placards, flags on Tryon Street, billboards that turn dancers into public personalities and a new website name as of Sunday: Charlotteballet.org.
“The Nutcracker” will turn up in December as dependably as eggnog and mistletoe. The mix of full story ballets and shorter pieces will remain in place. The identical crew of versatile dancers will carry out the artistic vision from the familiar uptown address.
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So why make the change?
The Queen City has few boosters as vocal as executive director Doug Singleton and artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. They felt it was time dance fans knew they represent Charlotte, rather than the state – and what the troupe performs is ballet, whether in tutus or street clothes.
“(Local) audiences may identify ‘ballet’ in a limited way, but in most cities it’s understood as a mixture of classic works and contemporary works,” says Bonnefoux, who did most of his dancing in America at New York City Ballet. “Everything we do here is ballet.”
This strategy has been simmering for nine years and brewing actively for two. When Singleton took his job in 2005 and studied the strategic plan, he realized “we had more important challenges. We needed to work hard on revenue over the next five to six years.
“Now we have more security than ever before, so we can stop and think about how we present ourselves. If I’m talking to someone outside the cultural community and tell them I work for N.C. Dance Theatre, the next question I always get is, ‘What is that?’ ”
Defining an identity
Nobody asks that question of San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, Atlanta Ballet or Boston Ballet. Companies that tour (American Ballet Theatre), represent a region or come from smaller cities (Alabama Ballet, Colorado Ballet) use state names, but Bonnefoux wants dance fans to see us in the larger category.
“When we perform at the Kennedy Center (in Washington), we want Charlotte to get the recognition,” he says. (Of 13 U.S. companies with budgets between $3 million and $15 million, including this one, 10 take the names of their cities. “N.C. Dance Theatre” comes from roots in Winston-Salem, where it sprang from N.C. School of the Arts.)
Bryan Downey, president of Belgrave Associates and a veteran of rebranding campaigns, says, “a brand is really a story. You ask yourself, ‘Has the old story lost its relevance? Does the brand no longer tell the organization’s story fully?’
“We advise clients to take the long view: Will the organization be stronger after five years? N.C. Dance Theatre has a tremendously good reputation; their core audience should adjust quickly and easily.”
The company has budgeted up to $80,000 over this financial cycle and the next to pay for the costs of signage, merchandise, publicity, etc. (That doesn’t include in-kind assistance from the branding company Mythic and marketing experts at Deloitte.)
Hanging on to dancers
The new ad campaign takes the first steps toward making celebrities of dancers. “We want them to be on the same level as Cam (Newton),” says Singleton with skyscraping optimism. Melissa Anduiza, Anna Gerberich, Amanda Smith and Pete Leo Walker are featured in the initial ads.
“For years, we have promoted shows,” Bonnefoux says. “We now realize people are interested in who’s dancing a role. They can think of us as a repertory company: If you enjoyed a dancer in one role, you’ll come to see them in another. And this helps make good dancers want to stay.”
The last big change is a rebranding of the company’s school as Charlotte Ballet Academy. That, too, is about long relationships.
“You can come just for a class, but we want it to be a training ground for people who think they may want to be dancers,” says Singleton. “If you start with us at 5, you’ll have a good chance of getting a job here.”