Justin Peck Makes New Dance on NYCB in 'Ballet 422'

Ballet 422 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Ballet 422 Still - H 2015

The renowned dancer/choreographer pulls back the curtain on his process.

Like so many before him, he was just a kid with a big dream when he arrived in New York City at the tender age of 15. But where others wound up waiting tables, Justin Peck found himself on the fast track to stardom. It took just three years before he joined New York City Ballet and, after dancing an extensive repertoire of works by choreographers like Ratmansky, Robbins and Millepied, he began making his own dances on renowned companies like L.A. Dance Project, Miami City Ballet and of course New York City Ballet.

In 2011, company ballet master Peter Martins appointed him choreographer-in-residence at the New York Choreographic Institute, and three years later he was chosen to become only the second active resident choreographer in the history of New York City Ballet. Filmed in 2012 and 2013, the new documentary, Ballet 422, in theaters Feb. 13, follows Peck as he makes his third ballet on the company, Paz de La Jolla, which he had only two months to create from scratch.

“It’s on the more extreme side when it comes to making new ballets,” Peck tells The Hollywood Reporter about the abbreviated schedule as well as the company’s heavy repertory rotation and a performance schedule that ranks among the busiest in the world. Peck’s process begins alone in a studio where he sketches the architecture of his dance in his notebook, developing what he calls a ‘movement vocabulary’. He then puts it on the floor, recording himself with his iPhone. Only when he’s good and ready does he present it to his dancers for their input.

“Personally I always have this anxiety the day before I start a new piece with the dancers because you never know how it’s going to shake out,” confesses Peck. “Once the ball gets rolling it seems to unfold much more naturally and efficiently."

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As shown in the film, Peck runs his dancers through his steps, taking suggestions from each about what works best for them. In the end, he estimates the final piece is about 80 percent his with 20 percent coming from his dancers, composers and designers. “The more I work with dancers whom I trust and who I enjoy working with, the more I can grow and allow their inclusion on the development of the choreography,” he says. “That’s what’s sort of nice about having the position here as resident choreographer at New York City Ballet cause I can develop a short hand with them and be comfortable to work and be creative with them.”

Filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes became interested in making a movie about Peck during a panel discussion at the Guggenheim moderated by his wife, Ellen Bar, a dancer turned media director of NYCB. When Peck demonstrated some moves with dancer Tiler Peck (no relation), Lipes knew he had found a winning subject.

“I was affected by how he spoke to her and how it affected her performance,” Lipes explains. “He was only 24 years old and he’s in front of hundreds of people and he’s at ease and calm. I thought of it like this guy would have a really substantial career and it might be nice to see a film about him before that happens.”

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Paz de La Jolla comes on the heels of Peck’s 2013 breakthrough, Year of the Rabbit, a vaunted work that has become a career watershed. Living up to it was no easy task but reviews were outstanding for the premiere of Paz. His most recent production, a reworking of the Agnes de Mille classic Rodeo, saw Peck himself unexpectedly stepping in for injured principal dancer, Andrew Veyette in a performance The New York Times called “haunting poetry.” Next month Peck will collaborate with street artist Shepard Fairey on a piece entitled Heat Scape for the Miami City Ballet.

“All I’m conscious of is the new work that I’m working on now,” he says, barely looking back at recent successes. “It’s to some extent in my control and to some extent it’s not. But I do think it’s a very exciting time for new choreography in ballet.”