Founded in 1948, the New York City Ballet is one of the foremost creative dance companies, staffed with a full orchestra, lighting department, production crew, and 91 full-time dancers.
But even at the top, there is a pecking order: Principals, then Soloists, and finally, the backdrop, known commonly as the Corps de Ballet. Fifty dancers make up NYCB’s Corps de Ballet, and Justin Peck is one of them.
But Peck, a member of NYCB since 2007, is tapped for other things, and the 25-year-old is handed the privilege of choreographing a ballet for the 2013 Winter Season. Peck’s ballet, the 422nd ballet in NYBC’s history, is the only new work for the season, which means that all eyes are on Peck and his Paz de la Jolla.
Ballet 422 captures Peck hard at work on Paz de la Jolla from inception to opening night. Director and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes objectively capture the process of creating something from nothing with distance, utilizing vérité techniques to observe while remaining an outsider. Lipes smartly does not use voice-over, talking heads footage, or have any of the dancers address the camera. Occasionally, a dancer or stagehand will glance in the camera’s direction, but out of spontaneity, not direction.
This technique is not only refreshing as the current state of documentary is one of information overload. Lipes’s approach allows the audience to observe the way Lipes observes, a way that would normally be unavailable to the larger public. We see how an idea takes shape in a series of movements: How a nod from a costume designer can transform into a piece of fabric; how dancers work out their own choreography while Peck busily figures out the lighting situation; and the thousand other decisions ballet’s boy wonder must consider before Paz de la Jolla bows before an audience.
Ballet 422 is a largely unguided peek behind the ballet curtain that expunges ego and reduces Peck, the dancers, the musicians, and the production staff to cogs within a much larger mechanism. The mechanism of NYCB.
Ballet 422 documents the process of creation. From nothing comes something. But that something is not what is displayed in the climax. What is displayed—via a montage set to the music of the ballet—is the process. Lipes cuts together highlights from inception to choreography to rehearsal and finally to performance. It is a powerful tribute to the creative process, one that Lipes and Peck both shrug off like true workmen. The lights go down. Peck bows on stage and then walks through the cavernous tunnels of NYBC. Lipes follows, only to find Peck in his dressing room preparing to dance in the next piece. There is no celebration or a need for one. What matters is the work. And for Peck, it’s time to go to work.
Ballet 422 (2014)
Directed by: Jody Lee Lipes
Produced by: Ellen Bar & Anna Rose Holmer
Starring: Justin Peck
Magnolia Pictures, Rated PG, Running time 75 minutes, Opens March 26, 2015