• Zoe Phillips

Always, invariably, unfailingly, keep dancing

The ballet world is not on pause. We are actually moving faster than ever.

Matthew Gilson

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?

In the prologue of his 2019 memoir, choreographer Mark Morris wrote that “the live aspect of performance is what appeals: the dancers, the musicians, the audience — all living beings in the same room. People might say they’ve watched a dance on YouTube and they have. But they haven’t. It isn’t live.” Morris is so passionate about this point that he reiterates it in almost every subsequent chapter. By the time the book is finished, his emphasis of live dance set to live music feels practically annoying. 


And yet, on May 29, the New York Times published an article on Morris's new adventures with Zoom — the choreographer used the video communication platform to create four new works, all now available on YouTube. While Zoomed choreography may feel like a monotonous phrase as we approach the second half of August, Morris was one of the earlier pioneers in this world of digital dance creation. In the May article, dance critic Gia Kourlas framed the process as inventive; she was excited by the now-customary technique, curious about his inspiration to still create amid stay-at-home orders. Morris told Kourlas that he felt annoyed by the idea that our lives must be on hold throughout this pandemic. “This is how we’re living,” he said, “ and there’s no real reason to fight it” — an admirably quick adjustment for someone who, just last year, published a book so adamantly in favor of live performance.


At the beginning of May, I sat on my living room floor and wrote the introduction to this series, telling the brief story of theatres that still remain dark today. I asked readers: What happens when we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes? At the time, I’m not sure if I thought the ghost lights would be off by now, at the end of The Daily’s summer editions. In May, many ballet companies still planned to return to their stages come fall; many summer festivals still had not announced cancellation. And yet, as the days grow shorter, most American stages remain completely empty. Thus, as this series comes to a close, it seems my question should remain at our forefront — what happens when we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes, and what happens when that digital stage continues indefinitely into the future? 


I have several potential answers, many of which I hope remain embedded in my various installments of this series. I wrote about Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour” and examined how the blooming natural world can provide in-person beauty when ballet goes online. I wrote about Tiler Peck’s online dance classes and the larger movement of celebrity accessibility afforded by COVID-19. I examined and analyzed the many ways in which this pandemic exposed structural failures of artistic funding: Companies now face fiscal meltdowns in part created and aggravated by a government that does not acknowledge the economic importance of an arts sector. Millions of dancers and backstage workers will likely be out of work for over a year. With the rise of national protests for Black lives, I wrote about the deep-rooted racial prejudice of ballet’s past and present along with this art form’s substantial role in the ripples of white supremacy that permeate our shores. I wrote about ballet’s structural failures to support Black artists and suggested that quarantine be used as an active moment to listen, learn and lean into the acknowledgement of such wrongdoings. I also wrote about my deep love for this art form. More than once this summer, the sounds of ballet’s music and the patterns of its movement have eased my head and heart of depressing anxiety generated by our country’s sociopolitical reckoning that is no doubt far from over. 


In writing these articles, I hope to have painted a somewhat contradictory image — ballet’s weaknesses can sometimes be as substantial as its strengths. This is an art form with the ability to touch hearts and save minds that also continues to break the hearts and exclude the minds of BIPOC artists. In offering this image, however, I hope above all else to have allowed for moments of hope. Even when we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes, there is room for growth, room for learning, room for change. 


This week I wrote about Mark Morris — my final point of focus. Above each of this summer’s chosen subject matters, Morris’s quotes from the NYT float above my conscience: Ghost lights are not synonymous with stop signs. The ballet world is not on pause. We are actually moving faster than ever. Change will happen, the best of us will listen to its calls of action. But throughout, as we fasten seatbelts for the turbulent ride ahead, we must always, invariably, unfailingly, keep dancing.

This article was originally published in The Michigan Daily on August 12, 2020, as the final part of the series "Ghost lights and Instagram likes."

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

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