It’s said that every theatre is inhabited by at least one ghost, and contrary to legends propagated by Halloween, these ghosts do not like the dark. Thus, when the curtain falls and a theatre’s house empties, an employee will leave a light — a ghost light — to burn onstage until the performers return. Across the world, ghost lights have remained on and untouched for months. But the lives of performers continue offstage, each day adding pressure to find performance spaces on digital platforms. What happens when the ghost lights keep burning and we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes?
The last time I was in a theatre was an oddly outstanding experience. It was Feb. 29 — leap year Saturday — and I was nestled in one of the 2,256 red velvet seats of London’s Royal Opera House. That morning, I had crawled off the cramped seat of a transatlantic flight that had brought me there from Detroit and napped only briefly in my friend’s apartment. By the time the lights dimmed and the orchestra finished tuning, the jet lag had already made my eyes heavy and my body limp. Nevertheless, my mind stayed sharply awake: I had saved and splurged for a week-long Spring Break adventure, and the only available day to see the Royal Ballet was the evening that I got there. I was not going to waste it. I bought the cheapest tickets and got to the opera house a full hour-and-a-half early.
It was only upon opening the program that I realized I had unknowingly purchased tickets to the retirement performance of Thiago Soares, a dancer I had been watching on YouTube for years. When the show ended, supporters threw buckets of flowers onto the stage until the brown flooring was impossible to delineate from the white and yellow rose petals. I stood watching until the absolute end, so tired I could barely stand but still not wanting to leave.
At the time, I didn’t realize that this would be the last time I stood in a theatre for what will likely become over a year. I didn’t realize that it would only be a few days before the Royal Opera House closed in response to dangers regarding COVID-19. By the time I flew back to Michigan a week later, people were already wearing masks on their faces with panic in their eyes. But my ignorance of the sudden changes ahead did not decrease my perception of the extraordinary present: The shift in time zones and leap year calendar date were backdrops to the unannounced floral show and the sheer insanity of my feet on the Royal Opera House floor. Looming pandemic aside, I knew this experience was singular and special.
Friday, I saw the Royal Opera House again. This time it was on my TV, because the company streamed a complete recording of “The Sleeping Beauty.” I sat on the couch in sweatpants underneath the warmth of two blankets and watched the entire two-and-a-half hour show. The music was beautiful, the costumes exquisite, the dancers delightful. But the opulence was, of course, not the same.
“The Sleeping Beauty” is a ballet full of tricks, especially for Princess Aurora, here played by Fumi Kaneko. In the first act, the princess makes an explosive entrance only to be followed by the long and luscious Rose Adage, a dance with four suitors that is, undramatically, one of the hardest six minutes of a ballerina's career. The scene is a marathon of brute strength masked by delicate grace that culminates in a set of balances atop one pointe shoe. The suspense of the whole endeavour makes it a performance especially well-suited for live audience. The balance is so difficult that it’s impossible to predict the ballerina’s success — instead, you sit helpless in the audience, willing her to succeed. The first time I sat in a dark theatre and watched a dancer step into her Rose Adage balance, my heart raced and my breathing became short. I felt intrinsically involved in her work.
On my TV, Kaneko hit each balance solidly. She even held the last one for an extra-impressive second before finishing to roaring applause. But my heart rate didn’t spike; I knew the Royal Opera House wouldn’t stream a performance with a faulty Rose Adage. The recording was too safe to be exciting. Plus, I was on my couch — there was a distinct lack of red velvet and golden lighting. The magic just wasn’t there.
At the show’s first intermission — on YouTube merely treated as a short pause and a repeated request for donations — I picked up my phone and absentmindedly allowed my thumbs to take me to Instagram. Then, on the Royal Opera House’s account, I read that Kaneko had only learned she was cast in this performance the morning of the recording. She knew the role from past runs, but in this instance she had less than a day to prepare. What a detail! The behind-the-scenes excitement suddenly piqued my interest. I thought about those balances again: How many times had she been able to practice? How many rehearsals did she have in that tutu? When the second act started, I felt more anticipation than before. Sure, I knew she’d land her turns and sustain her extensions, but instead I could take advantage of the up-close camera angle and look at her face and eyes. I imagined what she might be thinking, how her day’s chaos may have unfolded.
The amount of prep time a dancer has is not something that would ever be written in a performance’s program, nor would it be announced over a loudspeaker before the overture’s first notes. In the world of live performance, such details do not matter — when the curtain lifts, the world pauses. Asterisks about how one’s day went are less interesting than artists who can suspend reality. Over a screen, though, things feel a lot different. Context matters — in fact, it helps.
As the summer’s ghost lights continue uninterrupted, I continue returning to myriads of approaches for ballet to improve and grow while outside the studio. Education initiatives, thoughtful action in regard to racial prejudices and perhaps a healthy level of rejection for outdated rules. I also continue returning to the fact that, with few beautiful exceptions, ballet is just much harder to love on a computer screen. My living room is not the Royal Opera House; my TV is not a stage. These two considerations may sometimes feel at odds: How can ballet grow if its fundamental beauty remains hindered? How can I lament the lack of an old world and also encourage a new one?
In reality, ballet’s current strength may be in our ability to embrace both — to log into YouTube and watch a recording of an old classic, but to combine it with new dancer interviews and behind-the-curtain conversations. Tell me what the performance is, but also tell me how it happened. Who is in it, what do they remember from that day? What is the history of the steps? Where do they come from, what is there to look for, to study, when I click play?
The goal of ballet, as I have written and rewritten this summer, is to be otherworldly. My experience at the Royal Opera House was special because it was so far removed from my small Michigan apartment. The magic that happens onstage is bolstered by the environment afforded by stages, seats and orchestra pits. In my living room, there are no such affordances. There is no unspoken construction of a new, ephemeral reality. There is, however, the opportunity to help me make one.