• Zoe Phillips

Budget lessons at the ballet

As these elite ballet companies press pause on life, their dancers are joined by the swaths of freelance artists who have been without pay since the first ghost lights appeared in early March.


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? 

In 1967, choreographer George Balanchine unveiled “Jewels” at the New York State Theater. Balanchine, often referred to as the father of American ballet, was inspired by the jewelry of Claude Arpels and created a three-act ballet to capture the style of emeralds, rubies and diamonds, respectively. The work was the first story-less evening-length ballet and worked to solely reflect the essence and architecture of each gemstone. It’s often considered a masterpiece; the New York Times once referred to it as a “boom industry” all on its own, and ballet companies across the world continue to place it at the top of their repertoire. 


In early May, NYCB uploaded the middle section — “Rubies” — to their digital spring season for an ephemeral three days. The Balanchine Trust is notorious for its licensing rules, especially for ballets as highly regarded as “Jewels.” Watching the piece on my iPhone was one of the more emblematic moments of how malleable the elite ballet industry has become amid the coronavirus pandemic. 


“Rubies,” like any other ballet scheduled to be a part of a ballet company’s cancelled 2020 season, could have brought in significant revenue. Instead, it was made available for free. The obvious fallout of such a change is hard to wrap one’s head around. NYCB projected a loss of $8 million by the end of their fiscal year, and companies like Boston Ballet echoed the same estimate. San Francisco Ballet forecasted $9 million to be missing from their budget by the end of their May season, and Pacific Northwest Ballet said they’d lose $3 million by the end of April alone. The losses leave huge question marks for the companies’ artists, employees who are often already under financial stress created by inconsistent incomes during performing and non-performing sections of a calendar year. 


Such question marks are not uncommon — they are sadly familiar. As these elite ballet companies press pause on life, their dancers are joined by the swaths of freelance artists who have been without pay since the first ghost lights appeared in early March. Beyond the performance sector, these dancers are also joined by the 20.5 million Americans who filed for unemployment in April. Economist Martha Gimbel recently told the New York Times that “there is no safe place on the market right now” — a history of government neglect of non-profit arts organizations tells us these companies will probably be the least safe for a long while. 


Nevertheless, there is distinct hope in ballet’s response to this pandemic. Most companies launched a relief fund and asked ticket holders to consider donating the cost of their ticket back to the company or keeping it as a credit for the future. By April 10, about 30 percent of SFB patrons had done so; only 5 percent had asked for a refund. By May 14, they had raised more than $2.7 million. NYCB and SFB pledged to pay their dancers in full through what would have been the end of the season, and while Boston Ballet and PNB were forced to furlough their employees they promised to keep everyone’s health insurance. These facts are inspiring, but they represent only a small fraction of what I find most important. Coupled with relief fund donations are various versions of digital seasons in which companies upload previously recorded footage of ballets and make them available via YouTube and other streaming platforms. Depending on the company, the footage may be available for a few weeks or a few days, but each one receives seemingly more attention and praise than the last. 


Each day, the online appreciation grows more apparent: Instagram stories of ballet fans watching pieces from their computers while taking a break from their online college coursework, anonymous YouTube commenters gushing about a ballet having made their bad days good and new parents on Facebook quickly fitting in some classical movement while their infants nap in the other room. Across the board, these are patrons who may not have been able to afford the cost or the time required for a trip to a theater to see this dancing in person, and they may not have a dollar to spare for a relief fund, yet their quarantines are made better by the presence of art. 


It’s important to remember the distinctiveness of these stories. Ballet can often be seen as controlled by an elite and elderly group who enjoy overpriced wine and cushy velvet seats, and the industry could have leaned into that narrative this year. After all, coronavirus has shone spotlights on the greediest side of people in economic power: scandals of insider trading in March, a government in shambles over a looming eviction crisis and a man set to become the world’s first trillionaire as we enter the worst recession of my generation. Companies could have made their digital season available only as rewards for donations, they could have deemed the licensing struggles too big to bear or decided it wasn’t fiscally worth it to keep providing for a full roster of artists out of work. But instead, they have not lost sight of the most basic, most essential mission of ballet as an art form, for what is performance if it does not remain based in the reality of shared human experience? 


I recently opened YouTube to watch “Diamonds,” the third section of “Jewels” and last week’s portion of NYCB’s digital season. In the list of recommended videos, the algorithm suggested I click on a video of “Rubies.” The “Rubies” recording from NYCB expired weeks ago, and this video was clearly uploaded illegally by someone who had downloaded the protected content. It will probably be flagged and taken down soon enough, but its presence on my screen that night reminded me to be grateful. Ballet companies and the trusts that protect the staging of these ballets know the risk of uploading their work — they know that the videos will likely be stolen and reproduced illegally. It will cost money and time down the road and might even change the landscape of licensure all together. But for now, they are doing their part as good humans and beautiful dancers to share what they have to offer, even as they continue to bleed.

This article was originally published in The Michigan Daily on May 27, 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!