New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck. | MAGNOLIA PICTURES
BY GARY M. KRAMER| The affectionate, observational documentary “Ballet 422” chronicles the efforts of 25-year-old New York City Ballet dancer Justin Peck as he choreographs his 2013 production of “Paz de la Jolla.” A title card explains that Peck, then a member of the corps de ballet, was the only company dancer invited to choreograph a new work that year. He had less than two months to create NYCB’s 422nd ballet.
Director Jody Lee Lipes eschews a talking-head style approach. Rather than have Peck discuss his creative thinking, why he was chosen to choreograph the piece, or if he had planned the ballet in advance and was waiting for this rare opportunity, the filmmaker instead immerses audiences in the company’s world — an approach that will fascinate dance fans even as it frustrates other viewers hoping for more explication. Counting down the months, weeks, and days to the premiere, Peck is seen sketching ideas and focusing on the different aspects of the production. Fit bodies are seen stretching and exercising, dancers are preparing hair, make-up, and costumes, and there are rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. None of the folks are identified, but all of their jobs are clearly defined.
“Ballet 422” gives viewers a peek behind the curtain so they can learn about how dance productions are created. The “action,” however, is as generic as the film’s title. Costume designers discuss an outfit for a dancer who wants a “long look” that will accentuate her lithe body. They are told to adjust a garment to expose more of a male dancer’s leg. The conductor works with the NYCB orchestra’s musicians, while the lighting director and his staff go through their cues. These episodes, which Lipes captures in a matter-of-fact style, amply demonstrate the collaborative nature of a dance production. They largely fail, however, to provide any true insight into the creative process.
In Jody Lee Lipes’ documentary, Justin Peck’s choreographic creativity calmly blossoms before us
Instead, Lipes relies on Peck’s actions to provide those insights. One of the best examples comes when he remarks to a dancer that she made her mistakes look good and then incorporates something from the moment into the routine. The choreographer is also shown working out steps and timing with members of the company to make sure a turn is fluid and the dancers’ weights are balanced.
Peck, who is handsome and charming, does not reveal much about himself in the film. Lipes follows his subject home at one point in “Ballet 422,” only to show him sitting at his desk studying video footage of his dancers. There is no sense of the choreographer outside of the ballet world. While this decision emphasizes Peck’s dedication and drive, it also misses opportunities to humanize him.
Peck never gets frustrated when a dancer fails to understand an instruction and he has to repeat the same move over and over again. He’s similarly unflustered with the costumers, lighting designer, and conductor. He even happily takes the advice of his pianist to thank the orchestra for their efforts. The subtext seems to be that if Peck successfully carries off “Paz de la Jolla” without any mishap or animosity, he might have a bright future with the NYCB. And that future now seems to be his.
Watching “Ballet 422,” one might be waiting in suspense for something to go wrong — and when someone observes that the costumes have been dyed too close to the color of the stage backdrop, it seems that moment might have arrived. But any stress Peck feels is apparently internalized, never expressed even in a stage whisper to his colleagues. The choreographer’s grace under pressure makes him likeable; his efforts truly seem like poetry in motion. Still, the tension in the air when the evening of the performance arrives makes the experience of watching it unfold — with breathtaking movement beautifully captured on film — all the more exciting.
BALLET 422 | Directed by Jody Lee Lipes | Magnolia Pictures | Opens Feb. 6 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, 144 W.65th St. | filmlinc.com
Director Jody Lee Lipes appears at the 7:15 and 9:35 p.m. screenings on February 6 and 7.