Stephanie Wolf: I have an exciting episode for you today. But before we get to that, I just want to take a few moments to say, if you like what you’re listening to, if you love this podcast, it truly is a labor of love. And we need your support. Visit our Patreon account, patreon.com/diydancer and find out how you can support this podcast and all of the efforts that we do at DIYdancer. Thanks so much. And on with the show.
SW: As we were sort of talking about before the recording started, what sort of adds to kind of some of the poignancy of this work is that before it could even open, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the show was shut down.
Craig Davidson created the ballet Ghost (Light) for Ballet Idaho’s spring rep show in March of 2020. It was, in part, inspired by actual ghost lights — lights that are lit in theaters when they aren’t being used, in theaters that are otherwise dark. And the very theater that Ghost (Light) was set to premiere in, went dark before it could open.
And I wonder if that changes the work for you in any way, like from a reflective standpoint?
Craig Davidson: I actually hadn’t thought about that too much until you brought it up. And it’s very interesting that you have and I do believe that I will look at it quite differently. Yeah, I’m gonna take some time to sit with that one, to let that absorb. But it could be, and I’m not superstitious at all. But if we talk about everything that did happen, it was Friday 13th the day that the theater closed down. And as I said, I’m not a superstitious person, but we are in a very different time right now.
SW: Welcome to UnSequenced, a podcast about the choreographic process. I’m Stephanie Wolf.
THEME MUSIC CONTINUES
SW: On today’s episode, we’re speaking with Australian-born, Zurich-based choreographer Craig Davidson. You’ll also get to hear from some of his collaborators.
I came across Davidson’s work Ghost (Light) online.
As you heard earlier, the ballet never got its debut, at least in the traditional sense. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater shuttered the day it was slated to open. But Ballet Idaho filmed the dress rehearsal. And like so many performance companies around the globe, Ballet Idaho quickly pivoted to virtual experiences to keep its audiences engaged.
So I streamed the ballet, really the whole rep show that it was a part of. Ghost (Light) was the final work on the bill… and I thought, “Holy Crap.” What a chilling sort of foreshadowing to end on this note — not just the show, but for the ballet company, its season. And then I found myself asking so many questions: about the lighting, about the costumes, the choreography, the meaning.
CD: Well, it came about really through the concepts that Ballet Idaho had created for the evening. The topic was light, dark. With that I wanted to explore as much as possible I could, or find what was interesting for me to explore within that. Very early on, it became quite apparent, it’s the contrast between the two, was the most evident that was there. And looking at how those words singularly were defined, as well as coming together. Which led me to see that it was shadows. Shadows was the thing that actually is through both created, you know, one can’t exist without the other. In order to have the shadow you need both. So that quickly got me very excited.
That’s sort of where we started to put a play on the words. And it doesn’t only explore the traditional theatrical meaning, but also the relationship that the two words have separately and together throughout the piece. So we were looking at as many ghostly elements as well as light elements, as well as revealing a ghost light to the audience by the end of the work. But not by bringing that ghost light into the space that is familiar to the audience. We wanted to reveal the stage back to where the ghosts like would normally be stored during a performance.
SW: There is a literal unraveling of the bits and pieces of a proscenium stage at the end of the work. Which we’ll get into a bit more later.
The first part of the work, however, is set to music by Grammy-nominated composer Anna Clyne. And that music really drove the creative process early on.
CD: It felt like it had all the elements that we were searching for on its own. There was the lightness, the darkness, the very ghostly feeling at some points of things. It was a bit eerie if I could use that word to describe her work. I wouldn’t say the work is like that, but it’s very intense. There’s a lot of passion within that work. It was extremely powerful…
SW: It starts to storm as Davidson and I discuss the work.
CD: …but also quite daunting in many ways because it had so many different movements involved into one track. And it felt like I went somewhere completely new each time, which was really exciting, I have to say and it did free something within me as a choreographer, but it also at the same time I was worried about, is it too much of a jump? Or, are we going to follow what’s happening through? Are we going to get a sense of it all being still related to the same surroundings? Until it kind of came together, which was quite confusing, possibly for us all because they literally were little sections of say one minute. You know, so you don’t get a flow with the dancers in the room, where everyone kind of goes, we understand where this work is heading. It was smaller snippets because I didn’t work either through from beginning to end of the track. I just grabbed my inspiration with either the piece of music that it was at that time or the part in the track that I was really inspired by with a certain dancer or the thought that I was having with that. And I would just go with that.
SOUNDS OF REHEARSAL
CD: And then when we pieced it all together, we kind of all got the sense of how it was going to be felt as a whole.
SW: The piece opens with just two dancers. A scene that Davidson describes as “very subtle.”
CD: It was very clear to me the beginning, I was drawn to a duet. We needed to establish a relationship or a familiarity about what is happening on the stage. There is also a connection between the two dancers on the stage that we feel from the very beginning, that they’re traveling through something together, something relatable. So it’s not a love duet at the beginning but it definitely is familiar. So that was very clear from the very beginning, it seemed very apparent. We had the idea of a very, very slow curtain up at the beginning and a very slow curtain down at the end. Once we all had that moment, it just clicked. And we felt like, again, I like to use this expression, but it was we were really inviting the audience into a world that we had created. And then we were taking that away from them, different to what it is, say when the lights go out. And you really know that the pieces kind of finish. It’s a bit more of a gradual thing.
SW: While Ghost Light begins with that intimate, subtle duet…
SOUNDS OF REHEARSAL
SW: …the ensemble work really stands out in this piece.
CD: It excites me more than what I thought it would have ever done to work with larger groups of dancers. I love to see what it can create as a whole, the formations that you can have on the stage, the way it moves around the stage. It is so powerful and I visualize it, but I leave a lot open to explore what’s happening naturally as we’re doing it. I might have an idea, but I don’t come in and go, I know exactly where these three dancers are going over here to join these six. Obviously I have some ideas before I start, but at some point, we might be using some of the phrases that we worked with, and then all of a sudden, it’s like that music calls for a duet right now. And these two people ended up standing right beside each other. So it feels like that’s where we’re supposed to go. So there’s a lot of experimenting in the moment and asking also the dancers to involve themselves in that to be open to the possibilities of seeing it. Because there’s so many different angles you can watch it from as well and see different possibilities.
SW: Going back to the original concept for Ghost Light – exploring the two words separately, and what they mean together – the second part of the dance does shift in tone.
CD: I really needed to find something that was calming at the end and Phillip Glass music just brings that ease in a certain way that repetitive, beautiful quality that he has…
MUSIC BY PHILLIP GLASS
SW: As Davidson mentioned earlier, shadows and shadow play are an integral part of the dance throughout. So with all those bodies moving through spaces, the different groupings of duets and trios and ensemble, how do you choreograph with all of those shadows in mind?
CD: Very early on, we spoke a lot about where the angle of light would be coming from and in what sort of configuration that could be throughout the piece. Particularly in the first part, again in Anna Clyne’s music, it has so many different variations on moods and atmospheres, that we were really trying to create different, distinct looks for each one that we were exploring. So I had a lot of information from a technical point of view before going into the studio. We obviously didn’t have the lights in the studio to really see what that was going to do. But we did at one point, we wanted to bring a cyc from the back of the stage further down to the front and play with the light, which would really cast a prominent shadow, and that was the main intention of that section. Which of course again, we didn’t know how that was going to result until we got into the theater.
Basically setting ourselves up as well prepared as we could be entering the space in the theater, and making quick adjustments once we did get there. Luckily, there weren’t too many that we needed to make. A lot was spacing shifts that we might have needed to make. We had many, many long discussions, which were really exciting and really interesting to me, with the team. Matt Miller, he was able to use a program and show me exactly what that kind of light would look like. And we’d spoken through probably as many of the possibilities around it before getting there to be as prepared as possible.
Matt Miller: My name is Matt Miller. I’m a freelance professional lighting designer for contemporary dance and theater and concerts and music and live corporate events. Basically everything you can think of.
Craig is the only choreographer I’ve had that tries to take his process to paper early on. You know, for lighting designers that work in other mediums that aren’t dance, there’s always a script or a score to go back to. But with dance, you know, you are building that skeleton, that backbone of the idea of the piece as you’re going. And Craig, I mean he was pretty clear about the music and the length and the concept. From that, we started to develop just a rapport about what the common language was, as far as the visual environment of the piece. We were looking at photos of old ghost lights in theaters that had been shut down, which right now is kind of ominous, you know, given that everything’s shut down because of the Coronavirus pandemic. But at the time it was just kind of a connection to the feeling that came out of the music and the overall concept. So we started there and kind of worked our way deeper into the piece.
So for this piece, we knew that we wanted to be small and intimate and you know, we loved the idea of stark shadows from a single source of light and being able to see that. So we kind of took that and expanded upon that idea. And, you know, ultimately, there are a number of very dark sort of stark and almost romantic moments. But then by the end, we’ve peeled back the entirety of the theater, all the masking, including the marley floor. And so, you know it’s very revealing. And there were a couple of really happy accidents as far as the stage setup. I think it was certainly one of the most enjoyable collaborations of my career.
CD: And we have a fun dynamic. The creative team is so important to me and this team was really great. You know, it was Matt Miller for the lights and Reid & Harriet for costumes. The conversations that we have really brought the work to what it is. It’s not my work, it’s our work.
Harriet Jung: I’m Harriet Jung, and I’m a costume designer with a background in visual arts and fashion.
Reed Bartelme: And I’m Reed Bartelme. I’m also a costume designer along with Harriet. And I have a background in dance and also fashion design.
Craig, I think initially had some imagery around shadows and shadow play, but not in a literal sense. He was interested more in ideas around shadows like the movement of shadows. At least that’s what I remember, Do you remember anything else, Harriet?
HJ: Yeah, I mean, that’s what I was gonna say. I remember him talking about shadows and light. I remember him kind of leaving it kind of open from there, which was great.
RB: Essentially, we edited our designs down to a unisex costume in three pieces. Based on Craig’s prompts about light and shadows, we really leaned into this idea of transparency and layering. So that with each piece of the costume, the whole thing feels very different when one piece or another piece is missing. And in doing that, it gave us a lot of options once the piece got on stage to make choices based on the lights, based on the movement and based on the dancers.
HJ: With Craig, everything had to be over Zoom, basically.
SW: This was actually pre-pandemic. So they spoke over Zoom because of the geographical distance between them.
HJ: Because it was this remote process, we really needed something easily accessible but also kind of, not a blank slate, but something that can be changed, can be something neutral and uniform. So that the lights and all these other elements can really be played with including our costumes.
RB: Initially when thinking about shadows, we were like greys, blacks, whites, and then I think Harriet was like, “Well, why don’t we do something more in the nude universe?” And then sometimes when you divorce yourself from the obvious notions of a concept, suddenly you’re very free from it. And it makes suddenly more sense. So Craig had a good instinct, which was he kept saying the word sepia.
Ballet Idaho has in their main studio, this picture window behind the dancers based on your vantage point. So watching the piece from the front of the room, a lot of light shines in from the back. So in a studio run through with them wearing the costumes, you immediately got the impression that with backlight, the costumes were very impressive because you could really see the silhouette of the dancers bodies through the costumes. So once we got into the theater, Matt had done such a beautiful job in exploring so many different ways of seeing the costumes. Though the costumes do appear in different versions in the piece, they seem even more diverse based on how they were lit.
HJ: It was a circular moment for me because everything was like through the screen, like you said. And then watching it was also just through the screen and we were like, okay. I mean it really came together nicely. His initial vision and the final product made so much sense even though it wasn’t totally clear exactly what it was going to be.
SW: Choreographer Craig Davidson hopes the piece has a future.
CD: I think it was a very special time in the company with the dancers. What we explored together, what we created, the journey that we went on, the results that we could see. Even though we didn’t get to the premiere, we were so fortunate to get to what we did. And it’s something that I am very proud of the work, and I think the company looks really beautiful in the work. So I would really like to see that happen. And I do believe that is the hope, that we can find a moment for that performance to happen live. I, yeah, it just depends on so many things at this point.
SW: The Zurich-based choreographer Craig Davidson, talking about his piece for Ballet Idaho called “Ghost (Light).” You also heard from lighting designer Matt Miller. And costume designers Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme.
“Ghost (Light)’ never got to premiere to a live audience because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the ballet did record the dress rehearsal and streamed that in April 2020.
That’s it for today’s episode of UnSequenced, a podcast about the choreographic process
UnSequenced is produced, mixed and hosted by me, Stephanie Wolf.
The fabulous Joe Kye composed our theme music. So a big thanks to Joe. And always, thanks to our Patreon members for your continued support.
Find UnSequenced wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and stay healthy!