PNB soloists Elle Macy and Dylan Wald perform in the world premiere of Jessica Lang's Ghost Variations this autumn. 

Robert Schumann believed that ghosts flocked to him, promising “magnificent revelations” or, perhaps, a trip to hell. They also played him music. One night in 1854, the German composer heard a choral theme. He transcribed it and created five variations. Part way through, he flung himself from a bridge into the Rhine River, had someone save him, finished the series now called Ghost Variations, and went to an asylum, where he died without writing another piece of music.

This year, working on a commission from Pacific Northwest Ballet, the choreographer Jessica Lang started seeking solo piano works and recalled Ghost Variations. It seemed to fit this ruinous moment. “I was just really taken with that story…. We’re at times really desperate these days,” she says. “I didn’t want to do something that was about isolation. Everyone’s going through it. We don’t need to see more art about it.”

PNB’s season kicks off tonight with its first of six repertories this season (along with The Nutcracker), all streamed. Lang has pieces in the first two. Tonight, her 2006 solo The Calling appears alongside excerpts from Swan Lake, Dances at a Gathering, and six other pieces. Connecting The Calling to this moment isn’t a particular stretch. “I mean, it comes from a ballet called Splendid Isolation,” Lang says. A single dancer, wearing an immense skirt, moves at its center, like the high art version of someone grooving in one of those social distancing crop circles in Seattle parks. PNB first did The Calling in 2015, but filmed a new performance in August. 

Her second piece, and one of the first created specifically for this strange season, feels less literally like a Covid concept. In the world premiere of Ghost Variations, the ballet, there are eight dancers and mostly they do not come within 10 feet of each other. Washington’s stay-home order meant Lang had to limit the piece to five people at a time. She decided on two groups of four dancers each and, since PNB uses live music, a pianist.

But watching a rough cut (the piece won’t premiere until November), I was struck by how little this felt like a Pandemic Ballet. If I’d watched in 2019, not much would feel amiss. Lang said she worked so the piece will translate to live performance after restrictions lift. “Peter, my lighting designer, always says to me, you take the problem, and you make it the concept." Instead of some destruction of the balletic form, the limitations became a form, like a poet writing sonnets. “That kind of division and conscientiousness of safety was just something that became part of the daily process and it became kind of fun,” Lang says.

What made the stage is full of mirrored movements and metaphysical vibes. To deal with the limitations, and fit with Schumann’s music, performers appear as shadows, sometimes synchronized with the dancer you can see, sometimes moving like a ghost with a mind of its own. Three quarters of the way through, because two dancers live together, there’s even a pas de deux.

In fact, the most 2020 thing about this ballet came when it was over, with the ovation in a nearly empty hall. No matter how many filmed performances I watch this year, I can’t get over that sound, the eerie, scattered claps flickering in my headphones. They sound, sure, spectral.

PNB Rep 1
Oct 15–19, $29–$39

PNB Rep 2
Nov 12–16, $29–$39

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