Ghost lights and Instagram likes: Tiler Peck's ballet barres and Broadway lyrics
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?
The New York City Ballet sent its dancers home and closed its doors on March 26, a month before the company was set to begin its 2020 spring season. At the time, NYC museums and cultural centers had already been shuttered and dance companies around the world were simultaneously lowering their curtains. Ballet schools followed a similar pattern: Suspended classes became virtual or cancelled and end-of-year recitals became objects of distant memory. Within a few weeks, dancers of all ages began the harsh transition off the stage and away from the studio. Dancers, notorious for their inability to stand still, stood frozen at a collective crossroads of where to turn next.
Then, the side projects started: NYCB Principal Dancer Megan Fairchild launched a series of fascinating interviews with other industry professionals, Cloud & Victory dancewear owner Min Tan started her #GoodBalletJuju podcast and NYCB Principal Tiler Peck joined the list of many professionals who took to Instagram Live to teach ballet class.
Peck’s classes quickly became archetypes of a ballet world in quarantine: an elite figure spending her time democratizing ballet for her digital family. Peck is one of the many dancers to have increased her online presence in the last few months, and she’s arguably the most successful.
A class with Tiler Peck would normally be considered an expensive anomaly, most likely reserved for the occasional celebrity workshop. Now, anyone from anywhere can become Peck’s student. She has taught a rigid six-days-a-week schedule for almost two months now, providing asynchronous feedback to dancers who tag her in their posts and never asking for compensation in exchange for such dedication. The process is a beautiful gift of educational generosity — ballet training has never been easier to come by.
The generosity doesn’t stop at just ballet. Most every day, Peck also invites a new guest from her seemingly endless list of artistically gifted friends to join her on Instagram. Broadway stars, ballet legends and Juilliard graduates make up a few of the categories featured. Each day, Peck and her guest offer a quick collaboration for one section of class. On April 2, “The Little Mermaid” Broadway actress Sierra Boggess sang “Part of Your World” while Peck danced an adagio combination. A few days later, former NYCB Principal Heather Watts took 10 minutes to teach Peck’s group the beginning of “Serenade,” an iconic George Balanchine composition. On April 21, Peck danced to the piano and vocals of John Batiste, the musical director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
These appearances are more than highlights to an already exhilarating online experience — they are emblematic of a growing camaraderie across artistic fields. Ballet is an art form marinated in a history of haut monde audiences who kept their content segregated from much of the larger artistic world. Tradition can sometimes be the most beautiful part of ballet, but when that tradition swerves too far toward preserving elitism it can also turn dangerous. Coronavirus may be fast-tracking ballet’s transition away from such danger.
As dancers on Instagram erode layers of distance between audience and performer, Peck offers a quintessential example of this change: A ballet class usually occurs in a studio with a wooden barre and a special floor accompanied solely by classical piano music. Now, Peck and her almost 200,000 followers take class from kitchens and basements, accompanied by Broadway lyrics and supported by whatever floorboards or carpeting one’s home offers. Old boundaries crumble every day, offering glimpses into a new world of balletic accessibility.
Last Thursday, Peck’s guest may have been a familiar face to Ann Arbor audiences: Michelle Dorrance, the MacArthur “Genius” tap dancer who brought her company to the Power Center in late February. Dorrance used a nuanced control of her tapping feet to create rhythm for Peck’s ballet combination. Much like the February performance, Dorrance’s contribution was a crisp explosion of brilliant sound created solely by her two feet. The collaboration was suggestive of ballet’s new synergetic horizons, and Dorrance and Peck’s enthusiasm offered new perspectives on what constitutes music, what constitutes movement and the suddenly possible new intersections between the two.