Ghost lights and Instagram likes: Houston Ballet’s celebration of rejection

Wednesday, July 15, 2020 - 8:02pm

NOSELL

Houston Ballet

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? 

Much of ballet has to do with precision — exact placement is the gateway to physical strength and artistic allure. This dream of absolute clarity of movement is thus the founding goal of ballet training: toes that point but do not curl, ankles that rotate but do not roll, legs that turn out but only from the hips and never from the knees, ribs that lift off of the stomach and shoulders that remain relaxed and level below an long, lifted neck. These rigid requirements, though necessary and impressive, are not physically natural. It takes years to sculpt a professional dancer’s body, and much of that time must take place in childhood alongside developing bones and muscles. The result is a physique that is strong and supple enough to enjoy the adventure of ballet’s art. Even still, that end product of adulthood is never actually finished: Rigorous daily classes must continuously remind one’s muscles about the distinct requirements of balletic anatomy. Stop practicing and the body will inevitably spring backward into its natural position. 

This, of course, is not easy. To maintain such well-oiled bodily machinery at the professional level requires a substantial mix of blood, sweat and the occasional tear. This level of physical dedication is part of what makes ballet so otherworldly — there is mystery in the difficulty of the steps performed — and it also makes ballet dancers some of the strongest psychological warriors of our time. They will work with the same intensity and drive as a football player without the appealing draws of money or even fame. To keep going requires intense vision, usually with the constant inspiration of a moment onstage under the burning beauty of industrial stage lights. 

These two facets of ballet’s world — a stage and a studio — tend to coexist out of their reliance on each other. Good performance cannot happen without hard work in the studio; hard work in the studio is difficult to motivate without good performance.

For years and generations this coexistence worked seamlessly and productively in the creation of ballet. Dancers worked and learned with each other in the confines of humid dance studios, exchanging lessons and providing inspiration for each other to keep fighting for their shot on stage. Now, like many other previously accepted norms of society, COVID-19 halts the opportunity for such exchanges. Canceled shows are, of course, heartbreaking events for dancers to bear, yet closed studios leave artists with little place to process such loss. Neither situation makes it any easier to maintain one’s well-sculpted technique, a level of fitness that begins to atrophy after a week, let alone a few months. Left to maintain their physicality alone and handle the mental stress of an art world in shambles, dancers continue to make do with living room floors and kitchen-counter barres. In an interview with her co-worker last week, New York City Ballet principal dancer Megan Fairchild said it best: “I’m miserable!” 

Enter Houston Ballet: Suddenly a ray of sunshine in the sea of gray clouds, the company gracefully disrupted the depression of ballet’s 2020 existence. Last week, they released a new short film aimed at maintaining audience engagement and hopefully salvaging their hemorrhaging finances. The seven-minute extravaganza features all 61 company artists as they bounce, jiggle and jive in an elation-inducing interpretation of Billy Idol’s 1980 “Dancing with Myself,” a song so perfectly crafted for quarantine that it’s hard to believe it’s 40 years old.

In the film, the dancers start out comically downtrodden — highlights include one man dragging his bathrobe through the kitchen while cradling a pint of ice cream and another, also in pajamas, with his feet in the dryer. When the music starts, the loungewear-covered artists start to bounce. One of the women has a bright green face peel. Then, they twist, jump and twirl. As the energy builds, their outfits change. Suddenly they’re outside: The world is bright, their clothes are even brighter. They’re swaying and spinning and throwing their arms. They’re happy to move and excited to dance. The whole thing is masterfully edited and joyfully acted — and, it includes barely any ballet technique. 

Each of these dancers is classically trained. They know all the rules — they’re just not following them. Their shoulders can move and their knees can bend. Their toes don’t have to point and their legs need not turn out. At the same time, they are still wholeheartedly ballet dancers. Even in their pajamas, they move with a grace that’s quite impossible to acquire unless you’ve spent your entire childhood in a ballet studio. Their fingers don't forget the distinct mold of a ballet dancer’s hand and their knees swivel without the joltiness of a layman. Even slouched, turned in and ready-to-roll, they do not shed the inherent liftedness of ballet’s mold. In this vein, they become strung across two existences, flying above us and walking among us in the same count of eight. 

From a marketing perspective, this film feels notable — the company is garnering support for ballet through the portrayal of something that is distinctly not ballet. They’re asking for donations to support their institution of rules by briefly celebrating a rejection of those rules. This seems counterintuitive, but it also feels quite perceptive. Ballet, like all art, has changed and will continue to change with the ebb and flow of years gone by. As we twirl our way out of 2020 and beyond, sequestered ballet classes and socially distanced rehearsals will no doubt change the look of 21st century ballet — could this be an example?

Perhaps we don’t need all the rules right now. We will need them later, yes, but maybe right now we can benefit from this deconstruction. In the future, we can rise from the ashes in a direction informed by this present moment. We can consider what worked, what didn’t and where we can go from here. But for now, maybe we just need to move, to smile and to bounce to a timely song. For seven minutes, maybe we can just enjoy the joy of dancing and remember that there will always be a reason to keep moving.