Behind the Scenes of a Justin Peck Ballet

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The blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a dance work is not news to many SeattleDances readers or writers, many of whom are dancers, choreographers, and artists themselves. Yet this fore-knowledge doesn’t make watching the creative and physical labor that goes into making a ballet on the big screen any less satisfying. It also doesn’t hurt when the labor is portrayed as beautifully as it was in the documentary film Ballet 422 directed by Jody Lee Lipes. The film, which made its Seattle premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival in June 2014, follows then 25-year-old Justin Peck as he creates New York City Ballet’s 422nd ballet in only two months. Though Peck is mainly based in New York—he is now a soloist as well as the Resident Choreographer for the New York City Ballet—Seattle audiences will have an opportunity to see his work live this week at Pacific Northwest Ballet. The company will present Peck’s choreographic debut, Year of the Rabbit, alongside works by Hubbard Street Dance’s Alejandro Cerrudo and PNB’s own Paul Gibson on the triple-bill Director’s Choice from March 18-27.

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Ballet 422 follows the creation of Paz de La Jolla, Peck’s third work for New York City Ballet which debuted in their Winter 2013 season. Peck’s choreography has received much critical acclaim, and he has since created numerous ballets NYCB, including evening-length works Everywhere We Go and The Most Incredible Thing. Here in Seattle, he also created Debonair on PNB dancers in November 2014.

While most documentaries benefit from commentary from their subjects, Ballet 422’s strength lies in its lack of narration. The camera simply follows Peck as he choreographs movement on the dancers, watches clips of his work at home, draws diagrams of formations, and discusses lighting and costumes with the crew. The viewer becomes a voyeuristic fly on the wall, a witness to Peck’s creative process.

The clips of the dancers are no less enlightening. Viewers get a glimpse of dancers’ preparation for a show: they bang their pointe shoes to soften them, go to the physical therapist to keep their bodies in tune, and struggle through counting complex rhythms in the music. The close up cinematic shots of these scenes romanticize the physical toil. To many dancers, it is indeed romantic; they love the art so much, it doesn’t matter what it takes to experience it.

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Despite the adept cinematography, it’s hard to commend the quality of the movie without commending Peck himself. He has an impressive resume for such a young age—his choreographic output includes works for NYCB, the LA Dance Project, Miami Ballet, and PNB. His visions have always been strong. Not only is his choreography inventive and intelligently musical, it also provides room for the dancers’ individuality.

 

Behind the curtain he is both an efficient and detail-oriented director, which is why his humility and strong work ethic shines the most in the film. The highlight of the documentary was Paz’s opening night. As chatter filled the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center and the dancers prepared backstage, anticipation rose in the audience. The film shows Peck watching his creation surrounded by fellow audience members who appear enthralled by the ballet. In the end, after the dancers and Peck take their bows to an applauding audience, Peck scurries backstage to prepare for the next ballet on the program, in which he will be performing. The film captures a sense of mundanity about the premiere, like it’s just another day at work. As producer Anna Rose Holmer said at the post-screening Q&A at SIFF, “there’s no fanfare, there’s no party—you go back, and you do your job.”

But of course, there’s more to the movie than just Peck. Glimpses of NYCB principals Amar Ramasar, Sterling Hyltin, and Tiler Peck (not related to Justin) are an exciting luxury. Even in their leotards and tights in the studio, the dancers bring a strong alacrity and expressiveness. Although professional ballet dancers generally are known for making every step look easy, NYCB dancers make it look both easy and risky.

peck3Minor quip: in some scenes in the studio, the camera angles and visual composition cuts the dancers’ footwork from the frame and instead includes the ceiling. While unfortunate, Holmer said that although NYCB gave the filmmakers full access, at the end of the day, the dancers need to do their jobs in the studio. This limits some of the freedom the filmmakers get.

 

The cinematography and the dancers’ focus in Ballet 422 prove that everything really is beautiful at the ballet—onstage and off. More information about Ballet 422 can be found on the film’s website. Tickets and information about PNB’s Director’s Choice, where you can catch Peck’s ballet, Year of the Rabbit, can be found at pnb.org.