Ballet 422: dancing on the screen

A fascinating documentary at Living Room Theaters traces the making of a New York City Ballet work by young choreographer Justin Peck

“We didn’t have money for anything,” Todd Bolender said in an interview about the making of his ballet Souvenirs.  Bolender was a founding member of New York City Ballet, in 1948; his Mother Goose, in which he also danced, was on the company’s inaugural program along with George Balanchine’s Orpheus.

I thought of Bolender and how much times have changed as I watched Ballet 422, the Frederick Wiseman-style film (National Gallery; La Danse) that documents the making of  NYCB resident choreographer Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, and much else. Ballet 422, directed by Jody Lee Lipes, is playing in Portland through March 19 at Living Room Theaters. The camera follows Peck over the two months it took to create the company’s 422nd new work (hence the title) since Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein established City Ballet more than sixty years ago.

Scene from "Ballet 422." Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures."

Scene from “Ballet 422.” Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.”

Peck was 25 in 2013, and dancing in the corps de ballet, when artistic director Peter Martins commissioned him to make Paz de la Jolla, effectively giving him one of the largest and best ballet companies in the world to play with.  I’m not just talking here about the 90-plus dancers. During the course of the film, we see Peck consulting with lighting designers, costume designers and makers, and others who gently educate him about what’s practical and what isn’t. Pianist Cameron Grant, who has been with the company since 1984, plays Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta de la Jolla for rehearsals; he is a magnificent pianist who plays for all of City Ballet’s piano ballets, and there are many.

Grant plays as if he loves the music, but the members of the orchestra, Peck and the film’s audience are told, do not: conductor Andrews Sill, the day before the premiere, asks Peck to give them some words of encouragement (which he pretty much fumbles through).  The camera pans on their elderly, unreceptive faces, and I remember that the orchestra didn’t always love the music Balanchine selected either.

The film begins with shots of the long corridors in the basement of the David H. Koch Theater, home base for City Ballet since 1964, but Lipes does not belabor the point the way Wiseman did in La Danse, his Paris Opera Ballet documentary; nor does he have any talking heads. This documentary shows, without telling, just what it takes to make a twenty-minute ballet, with three principal dancers and fifteen corps members, in slightly less than two months. That may seem like a long time, butthis company is rehearsing many ballets for its post-Nutcracker season, and Peck is dancing in a number of them.

Next, we see Peck taking company class, the dancers warming up beforehand; then, a rehearsal of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces, in which Peck is performing. After that, we get the first inkling of his choreographic process as, like a contemporary choreographer, he creates some movement on himself, after which we are shown him working with principal dancers Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck (no relation) and Amar Ramasar. Peck makes notes as these three beautiful dancers get the fast steps into their bodies. A dancer makes a couple of mistakes; Peck thinks they’re beautiful and incorporates them into the piece. Balanchine did this in Serenade, the first ballet he made on American soil, in 1935.

The camera follows Peck home to his apartment in Washington Heights, where he continues to work on the piece, listening to the music over and over, watching the movement on a laptop computer. We don’t see much of the contents of his living space, except for a piano and a large photograph of (I think) an unidentified composer, hanging above his desk.

One month before the premiere (we are told), costume shop staff are shown dyeing fabric in big clothes washers for, signs say, the “New Justin Peck.”  In the studio, rehearsing the dancers, Peck, in the argot of his generation, tells them, “It’s not like crispy enough.”  They do it again. “That’s super pretty,” he says.  This is a contemporary ballet that builds on the past, I think, as I watch a dancer performing perfectly centered fouettés (whip turns). Meanwhile, a costume maker is concerned about how well her skirt will move, “once she twirls.”  And Peck wants a lot of leg to show for another dancer, “because the lines are better.”

We are taken to dress rehearsal, where a section of the dance is filmed in an artificial blur, jarring in the context of the enlightening clarity of what came before. Peck gives notes, assisted by ballet master Albert Evans, who danced in the company for twenty-two years.  I’s are dotted, T’s, no doubt along with fingers, are crossed.  Peck remains startlingly calm throughout, making me wonder if any artistic tantrums were edited out. (In an interview with Sarah Kaufman published in the Washington Post, Lipes says not.)

Justin Peck in a scene from "Ballet 422." Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Justin Peck in a scene from “Ballet 422.” Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Showtime: and Peck is filmed walking toward the Koch Theater, going down the stairs to his dressing room, putting on a suit and tie, while the dancers are filmed putting on makeup, having their hair done.  Out in the house, we see little girls all dressed up to see the ballet (are they relatives of Peck, I wonder?), the musicians taking their places, dancers doing a barre backstage.  Peck works the lobby crowd and then slides into an aisle seat next to critic Mindy Aloff, who decades ago wrote incisive reviews in Portland for Willamette Week and edited the performance program magazine Encore.

Good grief, I thought, is she reviewing?  Turns out she was there as Peck’s guest. He had been her student, in 2008, a year after he joined City Ballet. He was taking classes at Columbia’s School of General Studies, and he enrolled in Aloff’s course in dance criticism at Barnard. From Aloff’s e-mail response to my questions:  “After his oral presentation comparing a film by Astaire and one by Gene Kelly, I asked him, casually, in front of the class, if he had ever choreographed–something about the way he spoke of images. He said, ‘No, should I?’ And I said that he might try, that I thought he might enjoy it. The next thing I knew, he’d become the choreographer in residence for NYCB.”

So she wasn’t reviewing, but Aloff’s delighted smile as she watched the premiere is a review Peck can take to the bank, although it would be difficult to replicate on a grant application, or in a press release.

Peck, too, is filmed watching his work on opening night, the camera providing the viewers with flashbacks of rehearsal vignettes, presumably going through the choreographer’s mind as he looked at  the finished work. We however, don’t get to do that, and while I understand that this is a post-modern film about process, and not the results of that process (I refuse to call a work of art a product), I would like to have seen how all those bits and pieces finally came together in a finished work.

We do see Peck taking his curtain calls, congratulating the dancers, and then wending his way back to his dressing room to put on makeup and costume for the next ballet on the program, Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH.  Ballet 422 concludes with a heart-stoppingly beautiful shot of Lincoln Center Plaza and then the credits roll.

I saw the film on Sunday afternoon at Living Room Theaters, in the company of many dance students and  professionals,  including Natasha Bar, who teaches at Portland Ballet and is the mother of Ellen Bar, a former City Ballet dancer, and one of the film’s producers. When the lights went up, she looked extremely pleased, and well she should have been. How pleasant to see a clearly informative film about ballet with none of the sturm and drang, not to mention pedantry, that have so frequently been the hallmarks of past cinematic treatments of the art form.



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