A ghost light is a single lit bulb, usually mounted in a wire cage on top of a metal post, placed on an empty stage, glowing through the dark until the theatre comes alive again. Although it is a tradition that can be traced back almost two centuries, fuelled by an unlikely mix of superstition and safety, the ghost light has developed a renewed significance during the age of coronavirus. Not only have theatres around the world used the device as a metaphor to hold out the promise of post-lockdown reopening but the ghost light has become an inspiration for work created during the pandemic. It was the trigger for Nicholas Shoesmith’s Catalyst for Scottish Ballet, created for the whole company to dance with a ghost light on Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre stage; and the Barbican has just announced a new immersive theatrical production called The Ghost Light to premiere later this year. 

<i>Ghost Light</i> © Kiran West
Ghost Light
© Kiran West

It seems that John Neumeier got there first. In common with other German companies, Hamburg Ballet returned to its studios earlier than elsewhere around the world, re-occupying its familiar spaces from the end of April. This quick return required significant discipline in relation to strategies of hygiene, the allocation of group “bubbles” and appropriate spacing conditions. Such necessities became the mother of invention, as Neumeier, the company’s long-standing artistic director (47 years’ and counting), evolved the experience into the concept of creating a ballet through the strictures of social distancing: developed in isolated fragments of choreography that were stitched together to create the first full-length ballet to be inspired by the conditions of Covid-19. The company began rehearsals in early May, at a time when other ballet dancers were still taking class in their kitchens, with Ghost Light premiering at the Hamburg Opera House, last month.   

Neumeier is to be commended for his innovative approach in these difficult times. Where other companies have returned to the stage with existing repertoire or unadventurous gala programmes, Hamburg has hit the ground running with a new full-length ballet, created on its whole ensemble of almost 60 dancers.

<i>Ghost Light</i> © Kiran West
Ghost Light
© Kiran West

The mode of creating the work has established a sequence of consecutive and overlapping dances for individuals and small groups, ranging from duets (same sex and mixed gender) up to tight ensembles of eight. Each vignette is a self-contained episode of pure dance. Neumeier has described it – reasonably – as a series of “delicious miniatures”, likening the ballet to a traditional Japanese meal. If the meal analogy works then it is certainly a banquet, lasting almost two hours (this live streaming from the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden included a lengthy introductory speech by Neumeier, in both German and French). A couple of courses could have been skipped but I suspect that the length has much to do with adequately accommodating the whole company.

<i>Ghost Light</i> © Kiran West
Ghost Light
© Kiran West

It is a group piece with very little opportunity for touch (other than for life partners and thankfully there are several such couples) but certain striking vignettes were especially memorable, including a perky duet for Silvia Azzoni (dressed in an ice-blue leotard) and Alexandre Riabko and a passionate clinch for David Rodriguez and Matias Oberlin. Generally, the dancers in these small bubbles performed at suitable distances, spaced strategically about the stage area, moving both separately and in canon but all connecting in a seamless symphony of movement: flowing patterns that provided arresting images.

<i>Ghost Light</i> © Kiran West
Ghost Light
© Kiran West

Neumeier controlled the whole production, designing set, lighting and costumes (although some of Jürgen Rose’s costumes from Lady of the Camellias and The Nutcracker were recycled for this new work). The score was a composite selection of Schubert’s solo piano music, including the six Moments musicaux, which proved to be a marathon of concentration for the main star of the show, pianist David Fray.

Pure dance was punctuated by fleeting allusions to the classical repertoire. Clara excitedly finds the nutcracker doll; an ailing Marguerite appeared although her illness could have been another allusion to Covid; and a distracted Giselle, separated from the other wilis, seemed to be searching for her grave. All these references signalled dance that has been lost. While other ballet companies have been reviving selection boxes of that same repertoire, Neumeier has used the experiences of this awful year to innovate the first full-length Covid-compliant ballet.    


This performance was reviewed from the Arte video stream.

***11