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NEW YORK — In his last big-screen directorial outing (before helming a couple of episodes of Girls), in-demand cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes teamed with Henry Joost for NY Export: Opus Jazz, an exciting performance film in which members of the New York City Ballet adapted a forgotten Jerome Robbins work to the streets of present-day NYC.
Staying with the NYCB but heading backstage, Lipes’s Ballet 422 shadows company member Justin Peck as he choreographs a new piece for the group. A verite outing with few performance scenes, the doc has nothing like the appeal of Opus Jazz, but should draw some highbrow attention at fests based on the growing interest in Peck, who has attracted a degree of critical acclaim that’s startling for a 25-year-old.
The picture suffers in comparison to Frederick Wiseman‘s similar La Danse, a transporting look at life inside the Paris Opera Ballet. But while that film observed interactions between dancers and choreographers that were as pleasurable to watch as a finished performance, it was also nearly three hours long — leaving an opening for this bite-sized fly-on-wall effort.
Here, the point is not a look at an institution but a glimpse at a career being born: Peck was offered a chance to create premieres for the NYCB before he’d even graduated from the corps de ballet, the group’s lowest tier of dancers. Lipes trails him during the two months it takes to create, rehearse and premiere Paz de la Jolla, the company’s 422nd new ballet.
Viewers should not expect to hear Peck expound on his theories or inspirations. Nobody here asks, and he doesn’t offer. When he speaks, it’s generally to tweak something mostly invented offscreen: figuring out in rehearsals that his soloist needs more time getting from point A to point B; fretting that the lighting design is too dark; reassuring costume designers that they shouldn’t worry too much about using heavy fabrics because “we’re used to uncomfortable costumes.” The other professionals Peck works with are often more animated onscreen than he is.
The doc’s structure is a countdown to opening night, but planning goes smoothly enough that little drama accompanies that ticking clock. It is gratifying, though, to watch the choreographer take his seat in the crowd, eager to see how the piece comes off — and then, following the ovations, to hustle backstage, get in costume, and head off to dance in someone else’s ballet.
Director: Jody Lee Lipes
Producers: Ellen Bar, Anna Rose Holmer
Director of photography: Jody Lee Lipes, Nick Bengten
Editor: Saela Davis
Sales: Andrew Herwitz, The Film Sales Company
Not Rated, 72 minutes
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