Ghost lights and Instagram likes: Kaatsbaan’s hopeful lessons for a progressive post-COVID world
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?
Stella Abrera was supposed to retire from American Ballet Theater on June 13. The prima ballerina danced with ABT for 24 years — a quarter century with the country’s national company, scheduled to conclude on the week of her 42nd birthday. Had everything gone to plan, the show would have been met with a once-in-a-lifetime downpour of flowers on the Metropolitan Opera House stage.
Instead, June 13 came and went fairly silently. Friends and company representatives posted congratulatory photos of the ballerina on Instagram, but in reality Abrera had stopped dancing months before. Her final performance was a February rendition of “Giselle” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., shortly before much of the United States abruptly shut down in response to COVID-19. She later told the New York Times that part of her was glad to avoid the pressure of a real final performance, but her predicament still feels disheartening — 24 years of performances ended without punctuation, without agency for the performer. As the shutdown of performing arts industries continues into the fall, Abrera’s situation is hardly singular. Three artists at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater also faced cancelled retirement shows in June and the list will be sure to grow as the ghost lights remain lit.
Nevertheless, Abrera’s unusually quiet conclusion does not make her future any less loud — she is now the leading force behind the first reappearance of live performance in the United States. After retirement, she assumed the role of Artistic Director of the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, N.Y., where she and her small team of six have planned the event space’s first ever dance festival. Starting last Saturday and continuing through the end of this month, dancers will perform short and socially distanced new works of choreography on an outdoor stage built especially for this summer. Small audiences will sit six feet apart or watch from cars and set lists will be kept short to avoid the need for bathroom breaks.
Dystopian conditions aside, the festival has been celebrated as a refreshing splash of cold water in a world that continually feels as if it’s on fire — live performance and new choreography backdropped by rejuvenating expanses of natural beauty. Summer months in the dance world are typically synonymous with festivals. Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, Vail in Colorado and the American Dance Festival in North Carolina typically attract international swaths of performers and audiences every year. They are now all operating online, citing the dangers posed by long flights and large audiences during a pandemic.
The Kaatsbaan space, though three decades old, has never hosted a festival. A recent NYT article stressed this detail’s importance: Abrera “has no precedent to live up to,” meaning she is free to keep things small. The local audiences and bare-bones sets are thus not sad downsizes but rather exciting opportunities. These points are indeed liberating in the consideration of logistics, but there also seem to be deeper advantages to Kaatsbaan’s empty blueprints.
Ballet, backlit by a more abstract world of uncertain change, faced more than one challenge this summer. Cancelled shows and locked studios created financial meltdowns that continue to threaten the industry’s future. Simultaneously, a national reckoning with confounded and systemic racial injustice pushed ballet companies to reflect on their complicit role in such exclusion. Some organizations responded more successfully than others, but even for the most progressive and well-intentioned responses, the prospect of tangible change can be hard to achieve in a world that, for the most part, remains completely paused. By nature of its timing, then, the Kaatsbaan festival feels symbolic of a question far larger than the local audiences of the Hudson Valley: As ballet begins its long and non-linear journey out of a quarantine shutdown, how much will truly have changed?
One could disregard Kaatsbaan’s contribution to this question as too singular to signify long-lasting change, but their efforts and optics feel too impactful to dismiss. While at ABT, Abrera herself was the company’s first Filipino-American principal dancer and now she breaks boundaries as female Artistic Director — a role with depressingly awful gender ratios. Her Executive Director, Sonja Kostich, is also a woman. For their festival, the leadership team enlisted three distinguished Black choreographers — Alicia Graf Mack, head of the dance program at the Juilliard School; Lloyd Knight, dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company; and Calvin Royal III, from American Ballet Theater. Abrera and Kostich sought the three artists’ contributions not only in the creation of new work but also to have a say in dancer selection, collaboration with the event’s other choreographers and input regarding the festival’s overall presentation. Also included is lighting designer Brandon Stirling Baker, who coordinated with a group of artists to create a light and sound installation for the festival’s entrance. The piece is a meditation on police violence and COVID-19’s effects on minority groups.
In the feature with NYT, Graf Mack said the festival “is a great example of how Black voices don’t have to be soiled, their voices can be woven through the work of different artists of various backgrounds. It doesn’t have to only exist in historically Black companies.” In essence, the festival intends to celebrate interdisciplinary and intersectional art.
There are many unanswered questions about ballet’s return to live performance, and Kaatsbaan will not answer all of them. It won’t even answer most of them, but nevertheless, Abrera and her team seem to understand their responsibility as some of the first to make such a return. They did not simply adjust health guidelines to return to what once was, they perceptively embraced the physical, social and emotional needs of today and tomorrow.
I do not live in the Hudson Valley and as such I do not intend to make generalizations about a festival or a performance to which I ultimately do not have access. But questions about the quality of this event’s success are different than considerations of its existence. Limited live access aside, Kaatsbaan feels like an important message to the broader dance world — we will recover, but in doing so we must also make intentional attempts to grow.