Ghost lights and Instagram likes: Offline meaning in online performance
It’s said that every theater 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 theater’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?
I recently opened a message from my best friend that was a response to a picture I’d sent her of the Ann Arbor sunset. She’d quickly typed a heart eyes emoji, meant to encapsulate her reaction to the beams of soft light that glinted through the fresh spring leaves of a tree on Geddes Avenue. In the chat, we continued a small conversation. “I’ve really gotten into light lately,” she said, telling me about the strings of morning sun that burst through a window in her Massachusetts home. I thought about my own morning when I had lay in bed, half awake, luxuriating in the warmth of sunlight that pierced through my apartment’s window and onto the lower half of my legs. “Me too,” I told her.
As Michigan wakes up from a notoriously cloudy winter, the new rays of light appear as unbelievable beings between timid blooms of flowers and trees. Our state and our world remain cloistered under the dark wrath of an ongoing pandemic, but the sun and its growing days are blissfully unaware — springtime happens even in war.
In 2008, Christopher Wheeldon made a ballet that chased after this thought: “Within the Golden Hour” weaves together 14 dancers in an architecture that wavers between fast and slow, large and small, animal and human. Initially inspired by artwork from Gustav Klimt, Wheeldon based his choreography in Klimt’s use of golden light. The dancer’s movements are airy and sometimes intangible, creating a sense of the sublime — a concept that inspired many of Klimt’s contemporaries. When the work was restaged for the Royal Ballet in 2016, Jasper Conran added costumes of diaphanous netting with reflective rectangles sewn into a middle layer. The result is a shimmery construction of fabric that reflects each movement onstage. In essence, the dancers become beams of light themselves.
In the piece, three lead couples complete central sections of varying energies and four background groups braid themselves into undulating structures behind them. The seven couples weave in and out of each other’s shapes, never stopping and never static. They move both simultaneously and individually, calmly switching between the two to create a spectacle of subtle brilliance. Ezio Bosso’s music matches the movement in a dynamic sense of exploration. By the end of the clips found online, it quite fittingly feels as if my screen could erupt in shining golden light. All told, the work feels like a spring bloom that buds new connections and sends life through newly constructed architectures of life.
“Within the Golden Hour” hasn’t gotten much attention lately. Among the growing list of ballets being uploaded and live streamed by companies desperate to share their art and gain much-needed attention, this piece hasn’t been one of them. This statement is born less from frustration and more from opportunity. It may seem like the work is less accessible than those pieces found on YouTube or Instagram, but the memory of “Within the Golden Hour” manages to still feel quite relevant. Its message of exploration, growth and light feels eternally responsive to the human condition. Even when limited to a few archival clips and new technological divisions between the artist and the observer, “Within the Golden Hour”’s themes remind me that a piece of dance can remain relevant even as its visual presence temporarily fades.
Lives are stripped bare right now. We’re existing in a polarity of fear and hope, left with little to distract us from our position between the two. We will need a lot of newness to move on — new medicine, new jobs and new normals. But some things will stay the same. Springtime will bloom and sunshine will weave its way through new leaves. Flowers will move in the newfound warmth of the sun just as humans will dance as we begin to rebuild. From afar, “Within the Golden Hour” continually teaches us of our own connection to such light and celebrates what it means to be alive.