The paradox of ballet is that underneath all the tulle, soft lights, and seemingly effortless movement on stage are years of strength training, intense dedication and busted toes. The more ballet dancers are perceived as light and graceful, the harder they’ve worked.
That’s not something that’s usually captured in the branding of ballet companies, but with bright colors, bold design, and splashy typography, a new fundraising campaign for School of American Ballet (SAB) created by New York-based branding firm Sullivan does just that. It aims to usher in a new generation of ballet dancers and patrons by defying the most pervasive stereotypes of the classic dance form.
Ballet has been enjoying a popular resurgence as of late, thanks in part to dancers like Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin crossing over into mainstream appeal. Some ballet theaters have been updating their image to match–the spectacular collaboration between the New York City Ballet and French photographer JR comes to mind–though others have been slower to modernize.
Sullivan’s visual identity, called SAB In Motion, falls squarely into the former camp. It’s for SAB’s latest capital campaign, which aims to raise $20 million over the next few years for renovations of the school’s facilities and updates to their programming, among other things. As the most preeminent dance school in the country, SAB trains young dancers who go on to launch professional careers at dance companies throughout the country. It is also a nonprofit, which means SAB relies on major donors and annual fundraising campaigns to support the institute; capital campaigns, while less routine, are bigger, multi-year efforts to generate funding for significant updates.
SAB approached Sullivan in 2014 with one main objective: make SAB’s campaign stand out from those of other major ballet institutions, and even its own corporate branding. In a world of formal, neutral-toned, safe visual identities, “we wanted to create a distinctive way to express the energy and spirit of the school,” says Sullivan founder Barbara Apple Sullivan.
One obvious way to do that was to bring to the surface what the school is best known for: the Balanchine technique, invented by the school’s founder and legendary choreographer George Balanchine. Developed in the 1940s, Balanchine’s style is quick and energetic, with distinct lines–and it’s now a reigning style for ballet company’s across the U.S. Sullivan took inspiration from this style to create a vibrant pink identity with energy and dynamism reflective of the SAB dancer’s movements.
To convey a sense of motion, Sullivan created a new font for the campaign that imitates the clean, bold lines of the dancers in their various positions. At first, says Sullivan executive creative director John Paolini, their type was full of soft curves, mirroring their own perception of ballet. When they pitched it to SAB, however, artistic director Peter Martins asked Paolini to stand and proceeded to give him a brief lesson in Balanchine style of ballet. After being guided through a few of the positions, Paolini says he and his team revised the letterforms to be more angular and strong, revealing a “visual tension.” When they come together or overlap, however, the letters convey a certain fluidity–just as dance positions do when put together into dance sequences.
Paolini also points out that the color they chose was a direct contrast to the traditional branding of ballet companies that are limited by a desire to stay gender neutral. “The bright pink with accents of orange is a nod to the hard work, energy, and power of the Balanchine method,” says Paolini, not a particular gender. “It signals that [the classic style] is not something that lives solely in some erudite and refined stage. We wanted to show it coming forward in a distinctive way.”
While the visual branding is just for the capital campaign, both Sullivan and SAB director of development Kristen Barrett allude to the possibility of it working its way into the organization’s overall branding, sometime down the line. Regardless, SAB in Motion defies both normal institutional branding, as well as the pastels and soft lines that typically characterize the dance form. “We wanted to achieve the illumination of how much hard work goes into finding and nurturing these young dancers into professional dancers,” says Paolini. “When you look at ballet companies dancing on stage they make it look so effortless. We wanted to reignite an understanding of how much research and training and athleticism goes into it.”
[Photos: Jai Odell/courtesy the School of American Ballet]