When beloved a Louisvillian, artist Julius Friedman, began his ultimately fatal battle with cancer, he also was just starting on a collaboration with the Louisville Ballet, in conjunction with ad agency Mightily.
The project was a reimagining of one of Friedman’s most iconic images — the single pink point shoe in perfect balance on the tip of the soft white oval of an egg.
That image, like many of Friedman’s works, managed to convey so much more than shape, color or light. It conveyed balance, discipline and mystery — qualities the art form of ballet has embodied for more than 600 years.
Insider sat down with Louisville Ballet artistic and executive director Robert Curran and Mightily President Pip Pullen to discuss the reimagining of that piece, as well as Mightily’s work helping the ballet, now in its 61st season, rebrand in an attempt to bring more eyes and audiences to its art.
“We started in May. They challenged us to be as creative and inventive and imaginative as possible,” says Pullen, describing the beginning of Mightily’s relationship with the ballet. “Along with that, they wanted more awareness, they wanted more engagement. We knew there was a wonderful treasure here that, as far as Mightily is concerned, was not receiving the attention or depth of attention it warranted.”
In addition to being an award-winning ad agency, Mightily works with artistic groups like Commonwealth Theatre Center and the ballet. The reason is simple.
“We love the arts and we think through the arts — it’s the best way to educate our community,” says Pullen.
After working on some initial rebranding, Pullen was walking through the ballet’s building on Main Street one day when something caught his eye.
“I had walked through and seen Julius’ poster on the wall, and I wondered where we might take that —appropriately — because it is an icon,” he recalls.
Pullen sent the idea over to Curran, and the two decided to move forward with the project. Like many nonprofits, there is a tight budget, but Friedman had a long history of being generous with his work, especially with regards to the ballet.
“He is renowned for — sometimes to his detriment — his generosity, giving away his work, his time and his talent,” says Curran.
In addition to a history with the ballet, Pullen and Friedman have known each other for decades.
Pullen spoke with Freidman, and the collaboration immediately began. Unfortunately it was at this time that Friedman was diagnosed with leukemia, and his contribution to the project became severely limited by his battle with cancer.
Pullen and Mightily continued the project, with Friedman’s blessing.
Then came the work: figuring out how this image related to the ballet today, and how to reimagine its visual aesthetic. Pullen was immediately struck by the idea of playing with the color of the egg.
“In my head I thought, what if it was a golden egg … what does gold mean?”
Pullen remebered that gold is traditionally used to celebrate a 50th anniversary. “Fifty years, what happened 50 years ago?”
The ballet’s season opener this year, “Stravinsky,” is comprised of two ballets created by the composer. One is the “Firebird” featuring choreography by Lucas Jervies, and the other is “Rubies,” a piece by the great George Balanchine.
And the two pieces just happen to be a perfect answer for Pullen’s golden question: Fifty years ago the ballet first performed “The Firebird,” and “Rubies” premiered in New York City in 1967.
The golden egg idea became the focus of the new piece.
On the day of that shoot, Pullen pulled together dancer Lacey Elliston and photographer Dean Lavenson — with the printing and paper costs covered Athens paper and Clark & Riggs Printing respectively.
They also had a big picture of the original work by Friedman.
“We wanted to recreate it absolutely authentically, not simply because it was an homage, but that’s part of the technical challenge,” says Pullen.
While the connection to a golden anniversary was there, it highlights the difficulty of promoting the ballet. How do you represent an artistic work you haven’t seen, featuring choreography and costumes that are months away from being finished?
While shooting the image, Pullen shot a version with the dancer wearing a red shoe. Those red shoes may end up in the all new “Firebird,” but they might not — it’s a balance of creating an image and relating it to what an audience is going to see in concert
The result is striking. It immediately brings to mind the original, but the bold colors — red and gold on a field of black — feel current rather than timeless.
The need to stay current is one Curran knows a little something about. It’s a struggle he must face planning future performances for the ballet, but it’s also a challenge that must be continually faced in promotional materials.
“We’re also experimenting, I think boldly, with our brand,” says Curran. “We’re trying not to collapse it, but how far can we push it? How far is too far, how far is not far enough? Because we can’t sit back. We need to push out and grow out.”
Curran and the ballet can push forward, while taking time to respect the past, as they have with honoring and reimagining Friedman’s work.
“Watching (Mightily) get excited about the art and the images and the dancers as well, I think that’s why you end up with a product like this poster, that you can dedicate to Julius,” Curran says.
Friedman died in July, but his creativity, passion and generosity will live on through the Louisville Ballet.