• Zoe Phillips

A palliating pas de deux

With their feet pointed in both factual and theoretical worlds, dancers cross boundaries that few others can.

Erik Tomasson

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? 

Writing about ballet can often prove difficult. Onstage, artists glide through shapes in coded sequences of movement that, when done successfully, create intangible fascination for the audience. The poses and positions melt into sentences and paragraphs of a language that is simultaneously beautiful and unknown. The resultant prose of movement is a singular occurrence — shared only between the dancers and audience of that evening, forever impossible to completely translate. No performance is the same and no performance can be replicated. This founding truth of ballet, of wordless live performance, is usually the most magical ingredient of one’s dedication to the art form. Now, the absence of its existence wreaks havoc on our ability to engage at all. 


Digital seasons and Instagram Live interviews currently fill a fraction of this void. Artist interviews and educational content offer new and important opportunities for learning in the midst of quarantine, but rarely will the virtual seat of a YouTube account match the internal artistic splendor of a night at the ballet. The nonphysical relationship that stretches between onstage and off ceased to exist the nights the ghost lights turned on. Four months ago, this was upsetting. Two months ago, it was demoralizing. Now, it’s almost painful to think about. 


I reflect on this progression as I watch my country tear itself apart. I write as we quarrel over the existence of a pandemic that has killed more people than can fit in the University’s football stadium when we spar against our biggest rivals. I write as we fight for the Black lives destroyed by the police in an unjust justice system that permeates every city, town and neighborhood of our country. I write as we read and talk and yell about the existence of science, about an oxymoronic construction of truth and about the very survival of our future. I write as the feeling of brokenness that hovers over my country and our world settles deeper and deeper into my soul. To go forward will require politics with correctly written policies and leaders who look out for those who do not look like them, but it will also require healing. It will require a celebration of love, of togetherness and of the inexplicable life force that sparkles in the air of great art. 


A ballet dancer’s power lies in their duality. Both artist and art, creator and product, their three dimensional presence moves across a fourth dimension of time with ease — these measures make dancers Newtonially human but altogether their movements expand and bend in Einsteinian fashion. With their feet pointed in both factual and theoretical worlds, dancers cross boundaries that few others can. This skill is inherently comforting in a world currently full of boundaries. When I look to the leaders of today, the best ones are at a loss for words. The worst ones are using the wrong words. Ballet transcends these shortfalls — it communicates what we need to hear without ever opening its mouth. All that it asks is that we be in the room alongside it. 


I reflected on this latter point this past week when San Francisco Ballet streamed a recording of their January 2020 Opening Night Gala, an almost two-hour long adventure that included excerpts from 13 ballets that spanned 150 years of choreographers. Could any of these works bridge the seemingly unbridgeable divide between stage and screen? The sixth piece on the program caught my eye: the pas de deux from “Le Corsaire,” a 19th century masterpiece choreographed by Marius Petipa and here performed by Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco. 


Pas de deux means “dance for two,” a section of movement that caters to the partnering abilities of two dancers, usually, but not always, a man and a woman. They are long or short, slow or fast, adhering to the needs and energy of the piece at large. The 19th century pas de deux, however, is different. Petipa, the governing force of most remaining 19th century choreography, designed an architecture of beauty and strength that remains the ultimate archetype of classical ballet: an entrance, a partnered adagio, a solo for each dancer and a coda full of tricks. These structures are the culmination of his three-act ballets, the climaxes of his love stories and absolute powerhouses of choreography that demand exceptional strength and commanding artistry in their presentation.

The 19th century pas de deux, in other words, is not subtle. Its size and scale reaches to the back of the theatre and pulls in every last member of its audience. It dictates specialness, it screams beauty. I hesitantly watched SFB’s rendition from my kitchen table, quite unsure that any of this grandeur would translate online. The jewels on Kuranaga’s tutu were muted by the smudges that cover my computer screen and the music, composed by Riccardo Drigo and originally played live from below the stage, was impinged by my built-in speaker. As the two dancers entered the screen, it felt like another day of balletic quarantine — excitement for the existence of content rather than the actual experience of consumption. 


But SFB’s rendition was different. Both keen technicians of the classical line, Kuranaga and Greco’s athletic prowess matched an artistic integrity that leapt off my screen. Seamless turns, weightless jumps and a careful attention to the smallest of details — fingertips, eyelines and exacting fifth positions — melted together in beautiful sentences and paragraphs of quintessential classical ballet. When Greco slipped and quickly recovered during his solo, my heart jumped. I’d forgotten I wasn’t seated in a dark opera house, gold curtains hanging high above my head. 


These small moments left me with an indescribable feeling. A beautiful yet unknown language inside of me. A sparkling life force between me and the artists on screen. A togetherness. A healing. 


I’m not sure what makes “Le Corsaire” different from the remaining 12 beautiful excerpts of SFB’s presentation. Perhaps it’s the overtness of the 19th century grandeur or the delicious opulence of the costumes. Maybe it’s the music, equally as grand as the choreography. Maybe it lies distinctly in the talent of Kuranaga and Greco, artists so confident in their technique that they managed to transcend the boundary of a digital screen without even being aware of its existence at the time of their performance. Most probably, it's a mixture of all these things. Most importantly, it’s this mixture that will teach me, and hopefully others, about the still-transformative capabilities of old art in new spaces.

This article was originally published in The Michigan Daily on July 8, 2020, as part of the series "Ghost lights and Instagram likes."

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Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!