Live streams: how Nederlands Dans Theater is reaching physical and digital audiences

Live streams: how Nederlands Dans Theater is reaching physical and digital audiences

Interview with Joost Poort and Ennya Larmit

WRITTEN BY: SOPHIE HEIJKOOP

In September 2020, the dancers of Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) danced the programme Endlessly Free in the Zuiderstrandtheater in The Hague. Because of the corona measures, only 178 people were allowed to physically attend the performance. More than 3,000 people joined them online. With this concept, the dance company is going all out on a strategy where physical and digital theatre attendance are combined. Their first experiences with digital live streams point to a successful new business model. How does NDT go about it?

After the theatres were allowed to reopen in the summer of 2020, many cultural institutions chose not to continue the digital initiatives they had developed during the previous lockdown. Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) has opted for a two-track strategy and broadcasts live stage performances online.

New business case

In a sense, NDT had been preparing for the production of live streaming for years. As early as 2013, the company collaborated with Pathé Cinemas to release dance performances on the silver screen and later, performances were broadcast on Mezzo TV. Joost Poort, senior commercial manager, started to work at NDT precisely at the moment when collaboration with Pathé was terminated. They had only reached a small audience through Pathé, and the costs were enormous. The videos were produced externally, which was the main reason why not everyone in the organisation supported the film productions. Poort explains, “The business case was not sustainable.”
But the concept to reach a global audience through video worked. Therefore, NDT developed a new proposition this year to reach a broad audience through live streaming: in the first instance because only a small number of theatre-goers were allowed to attend a live performance due to the corona measures, but the company also wanted to attract its international audiences.

Normally, we perform in New York once every three years. Now we can offer that audience a fully fledged performance more often.

Joost Poort

Another important factor for the new business case is that the stream is broadcast live, at the same time as the performance on stage. It, therefore, has the same rhythm and atmosphere as attending a live performance in the theatre. “Because it is live”, Poort says, “we can charge 15 euros for a ticket. Many people even indicated that they would have paid more than that. If it had not been live, it would have been a different type of product. Then, you could compare it with a regular film or video product, for which you might pay less online.”

The Other You - Crystal Pite

Artistic integrity

Ennya Larmit

Creative content maker

There is more to making a live stream for the audience than merely broadcasting a recording a piece. We have always made video recordings, but those are intended for the work archive, so dancers can study them when pieces are restaged, and technicians can look at technical issues such as the lighting plan. The live streams must do justice to the audience’s theatre experience and should express the meaning of the choreography. Two years ago, NDT found a creative content maker who is equipped to realise this: Ennya Larmit.

In university, Larmit studied the combination of dance and film and how these two art forms can reinforce each other. In her time with the company, she has made videos for educational and marketing purposes for NDT. In addition, she now directs the live streams, and prepares them down to the last detail. Larmit: “We took a lot of time over the preparations, such as going through the choreographies with the camera teams to determine possible camera positions.” Already during the rehearsals, she would make video recordings to see which images worked well and to determine, in consultation with the choreographer, how to get across the atmosphere and dynamics of the choreography on screen.

Creating a broad consensus within the company was one of the lessons that NDT learned from the Pathé project. Poort: “Before the summer, Ennya convinced everyone of the achievable quality, when she produced the film ‘Standby’, a ballet by the departing artistic director Paul Lightfoot. As a result, we took on this trajectory with total peace of mind.” The choreographers and dancers were enthusiastic about the idea to keep in touch with their audience this way.
The programming was slightly adjusted to the fact that the performance would also be broadcast online. Choreographer Medhi Walerski slightly adapted the piece Silent tides and his work SOON was added because it fitted so well. “But,” Larmit says, “we didn’t do any major interventions. For example, we didn’t adjust the lighting plan for the live stream at all. I tried to keep the experience the same as in the theatre, although the audience at home comes a little closer to the performance.”
Larmit learned a lot from the extensive rehearsals:

We tried so many things that we now have a good basis. For example, we figured out the best camera positions without distracting the audience. We decided on a simple set-up with which we can start the next live stream.

Ennya Larmit

Technology behind the live stream

“We hired three cameras for the live stream and assigned professionals to operate them. We sent the images to the ‘StreamMachine’. NDT was familiar with this technology through pop podium PAARD in The Hague. The costs of the equipment hire and the camera operators compare well with the proceeds of the ticket sales,” Poort continues. This allowed Larmit to use some editing software to direct which images were streamed live. Every performance was filmed live and edited by Larmit on site, “Every evening was a little bit different, which contributed to the live experience.”

NDT decided to broadcast live on their own website and used video-sharing platform ‘Mux’ to embed the video to their own page afterwards. Everyone who bought a ticket for the live stream received a unique link that could only be viewed on one device at a time. This prevented the link from being shared endlessly. We encouraged people to watch together, so more people viewed the performances than the 3,000 + tickets that were sold. Poort: “We heard about a complete dance school that watched it together. It attracted a lot of interest.”

42% of the people watched on their smart TV and that is what Poort would recommend for the next time as well: “A larger screen offers a better quality and experience.” We offered technical support through a chat function. One of the things that the team wants to adjust is to show moving pictures before the show and during the break. This time, it was static, which made some viewers think that the stream had crashed.

STREAMMACHINE

The Brouhaha Foundation in The Hague, which is committed to making ‘the cultural sector of the city as lively as possible online’ took the initiative of the StreamMachine. The producers were looking for a simple way to get events online.

The StreamMachine has a home server with an Internet connection and includes a sound mixer and four HD cameras. From the device, we can stream to video platforms.

Streammachine

Rights and archiving

Broadcasting dance performances cannot be done without arranging the rights for the music, the performance of the dancers, the choreographer and other members of the artistic team. NDT has discussed these rights with the performers from the start, and everyone has felt the need for a larger audience reach in corona times.
The live registration can no longer be used for other purposes. The recording is stored and becomes part of the company’s archive. But if we show it again, we must arrange the rights once again. This is something we should manage differently in the long run, given that digital offers are on the rise anyway. Poort hopes that the experiences around the first live stream can serve as a blue prin for the future: “Everyone is enthusiastic, we can continue to do this and create a proposition for a new audience.” As per usual, we also recorded a registration for the work archive: “We wanted to keep that separate from the live stream because it has a different purpose, namely for the dancers to learn the material at a later stage, so they are aware of the roles and the lighting of the piece.”

International and lastminute

With the live streams, we achieved our aim to reach an international audience. NDT’s research shows that 60% of the viewers were located in a country other than the Netherlands. The most international viewers were from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. “We did not reach many people in Asia, probably because of the time difference,” Poort explains. “Next time, we should consider a matinee performance or keep a broadcast available a bit longer.”

In total, more than 3,000 digital tickets were sold for the three performances and because many people watched it together, the number of virtual visitors exceeds that number. NDT used several payment systems, including PayPal, which is a common provider internationally. The promotion of the live streams was completely different than our usual campaigns. The Dutch audience, and most loyal NDT visitors, was willing to buy tickets quickly. But many tickets were sold at the last moment, up to 5 minutes before the start of the performance. NDT is not used to this because regular performances tend to be sold out very quickly. Poort thought this was quite exciting: “In the end, it all turned out well. Because only 178 people were allowed to watch in the Zuiderstrandtheater that evening, that at full capacity can seat more than 1,000 visitors, we hoped to increase the audience numbers to the usual quantity. And we succeeded, with more than 1,000 paying persons who watched digitally per night. So, eventually, this was three times more than a sold-out venue.”

NDT was also planning on a complete Dutch tour of Endlessly Free as part of the programme. The company consulted all the theatres whether they would sell digital tickets to their audience. The profits would be distributed according to the traditional partage system of sharing and dividing. Many theatres appeared to find that difficult. Poort hopes that the experience proves that online viewing is indeed a great addition for theatre-goers, and that this will be facilitated more often in the future.

Hybrid form in the theater

Parkstad Limburg theatres in Heerlen showed the live stream to an audience in one of their auditoria. It became a hybrid form in which people enjoyed the event as if they were having a regular night out. Janneke Schmeitz, dance programmer: “As a theatre, we think it is important to connect the performers to the audience. Offering a live stream is not something we consider as a standard solution. When NDT had to weigh up their options, part of the equation was that Endlessly Free could not be performed live in Limburg anymore because of the limited locations. They were also very keen to offer the theatre audience the extra dimension of watching together: as if they were part of the ‘real’ audience in the theatre. To make that experience as complete as possible, we organised an introduction as we usually do at the regular dance performances.”

To convey the choreography well, the theatre used technology they already had at hand: a large screen, a great sound system and a high-quality beamer. Schmeitz: “Despite the physical distance, it felt very up-close and personal. What you might have missed are the sounds of the dancers’ movements, which you normally hear well in the hall; those were a bit more muffled and in the background, probably because the music was channelled directly into the live stream.”

All things considered, the audience reacted enthusiastically. One of the visitors said: “Very beautiful dance performance. This was really cool because of the live stream on the large screen in the theatre, you felt as if you were at the actual performance. Many thanks for this unique opportunity, BRAVO!!” And: “Great performance and very unusual to see the dancers from up close.”
Of course, the experience was not the same as a live dance performance. Some visitors also noticed that: “The magic of a live performance was missing,” and someone else: “Sometimes, you miss the three-dimensional view.” Schmeitz: “Despite this, the audience had a strong desire to applaud – and they did – which felt a bit strange in front of an ’empty’ stage. But this is exactly the extra experience we were after.”

Schmeitz also stresses that it is a different type of experience, but she still finds live streaming a good alternative in these times of corona measures: “We are not a cinema, it is about the interaction and my dance programming would look different in normal times. NDT will return to Heerlen in May 2022 – knock on wood – and I believe this has been a great alternative to offer to the audience.”

The right strategy

With this case proves the success of the two-track strategy. “Our result shows that it is a mistake to believe that digital does not coincide with a full auditorium, as a matter of fact, it is an addition,” says Poort. We have not yet decided whether the live streams will become a fixed part of NDT’s programming. However, Poort hopes it does: “It was important for us to take on a project that gave everyone a happy feeling. The whole process might have been slow and patchy at times, but in hindsight, everyone is very proud. And the results are good, financially and statistically. The dancers appreciate that we had great attendance, and the choreographers have seen that it still showcases their work properly.”

Because of the corona measures, NDT has decided to offer NDT2’s Dare to Say programme exclusively via live stream on November 6, 7 and 8.

Published in

This article was also published on the DEN website, knowledge institute of culture and digitalization.  Author: Sophie Heijkoop, advisor at DEN.