Choreographer Justin Peck is something of a big deal in the world of ballet. In a recent column, New York Times dance critic Brian Seibert addressed the growing “Messiah” chatter around Peck’s work, as critics starved for a Great (with a capital ‘g’) 21st century artist have assigned their dreams to the young man. That he’s is only 25 years old seems to only fuel the excitement. His pieces for the New York City Ballet have gotten rave reviews, and the old institution has continued to commission them. The fact that he is also a low-ranking dancer in the company’s corps de ballet makes the story even more interesting.
All of this makes him an excellent subject for a documentary, at least on paper. Ballet 422 follows the production of one of these NYCB commissions from start to finish, all the way up to its Lincoln Center premiere in January 2013. This is the third feature from director Jody Lee Lipes (NY Export: Opus Jazz) who is perhaps best known as a cinematographer, his credits including the narrative films Martha Marcy May Marlene and Tiny Furniture. As one might expect from someone with such a background, Ballet 422 opts for a primarily verite approach. Lipes looks for beauty in the least obvious places, presenting a creative process full of details, questions and unexpected changes.
It begins quietly with Peck working out his ideas alone in a studio. His process is remarkably simple and very 21st century. Listening to his chosen music (Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta La Jolla) with ear buds, he records himself trying out steps with his phone’s camera. It’s the most solitary part of the film, expertly composed by Lipes and entirely unrepresentative of everything that follows. Ballet is a collaborative art form, especially when the choreographer is such a comparative newbie.
Peck also isn’t the most charismatic of artists. His response to a great many questions from dancers and other collaborators is “I dunno,” which becomes something of a refrain. He’s very quiet and seems somewhat bewildered by the enormity of the institution that is the NYCB, which is the most interesting element of the film. Everyone seems more experienced than he is, from the lighting and costume designers to the principal dancers. The result is not the calling into question of Peck’s talent, far from it. Rather, Ballet 422 draws its best moments from the act of collaboration. A pas de deux between Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar is one thing in the mind of the choreographer but entirely different when they actually begin to rehearse. Their efforts to workshop the most minute of movements are captured by Lipes with a patient eye.
As time elapses and opening night nears, the theater itself seems to expand. Like last year’s triumphant opera documentary Becoming Traviata, Ballet 422 doesn’t simply illustrate the frenetic temporal aspects of a rush to a live performance but offers a cinematic sense of growth. Things move from a piano accompanist to a full orchestra, from the relaxed clothes of the rehearsal studio to the gradually assembled, altered and perfect costumes. Lipes turns even the process of lighting design into a thing of beauty, with help from the grand theater itself. The building begins to resemble an entire world, its internal geography mysterious and overwhelming.
The costume designers, Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, are a particular treat to watch at work. Their task here is to create a different outfit for each cast member, something new for Peck after his much more uniform hit Year of the Rabbit. They balance their own ambitions, Peck’s taste and the needs of individual dancers with their own smiling grace.
Step by step, things come together. Even on opening night Ballet 422 is restrained. Lipes resists the urge to revel in the performance with reckless abandon, choosing instead to continue treating the company and the building itself as a character that looms over any single ballet. It is not to be forgotten that Peck is also a member of the corps, that he will himself need to dance later in the evening. At the New York City Ballet, even a potential Messiah is only one more uniquely talented member of a majestic collaboration.
This review was originally published during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19, 2014. It is being reposted for its theatrical release. Visit the film’s website for more info.
Correction: This review originally claimed the film was Jody Lee Lipes’s directorial debut and noted that he was a cinematographer on HBO’s Girls. It is in fact his third film as a director, and he also directed episodes of Girls, too.