When we first see Justin Peck, the young dancer-choreographer at the center of Ballet 422, he’s another anonymous dancer amid the scores at New York City Ballet; sweating at the barre, one of a look-alike crowd criss-crossing the stage. The mystery — and it’s both a wonder and a frustration — at the heart of Ballet 422 is the rare creative spark inside someone who seems so much like everyone else. We see Peck’s relentless work process, the painstaking craft and near-endless details that go into creating a ballet. But Peck’s inspiration, the source of his talent, remain opaque.
Director Jody Lee Lipes is an adherent of classic cinéma vérité documentary, and so there are no interviews or narration in Ballet 422, just brief factual text between scenes. Lipes follows Peck’s journey in 2013, as the 25-year-old corps dancer and budding choreographer gets an unexpected chance to create Paz de la Jolla, the 422nd ballet for the storied New York City Ballet. Since then, of course, Peck has become NYCB’s resident choreographer and a darling of the ballet world. (The film holds particular interest for South Florida, since Miami City Ballet will premiere its second original Peck ballet, Heatscape, in March; it is a major commission that could be a significant event for MCB.)
Lipes had help from his wife, Ellen Bar, who, as a former NYCB dancer and director of the troupe’s media projects, gave him crucial insight to ballet’s arcane processes. We see Peck through the screen of his phone, a tiny, moving figure, as he films himself trying out steps in the studio, sketching and making notes. We follow rehearsals with the dancers, first one, then three, then a group; the constant, meticulous adjustment of physical details — arms this way, lean closer to your partner earlier — and the startling, even wondrous contrast when the dancers transform those seemingly mundane mechanics into spectacular movement. (At one point Peck tells a dancer he needs to develop his finger flexibility to get the right “tree toe fingers.”)
Lipes follows the accompanying processes with the same detail, highlighting a lighting designer who tells an intense but slightly uncertain-looking Peck how he hopes to push the narrative, and costume designers and craftspeople sketching costumes, who consult with Peck over cutouts and colors, dying fabric, fitting and refitting and refitting. You should come away with a deep appreciation for the work and amount of detail and attention required to create and stage a ballet.
Peck remains at the center throughout, on the subway at night, working on the computer at home, watching in rehearsal, listening earnestly in meetings, big-eyed and opaque. Over the course of the film, and the short two months he has to create the ballet, we see him gradually, hesitantly become more assertive, seeking a way to express his vision amidst this complex organizational effort, to balance being a cog in a big machine with being a creator guiding it for this one project. There’s an excruciating-comic moment when Peck politely asks the orchestra to please play with a little more energy.
Even on opening night, the climax of the film, we only see snippets of Paz de la Jolla; the end product of this two-month journey, like Peck and his inspiration, remains a mystery. The most electrifying shot of the movie is also the most heartbreakingly mundane, as Peck transitions from his achievement and moment in the spotlight back to being part of the company. But the wonder of his creativity, and of dancing, go on.
With: Justin Peck, Cameron Grant, Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin, Amar Ramasar, Albert Evans, Mark Stanley, Reid Bartelme, Harriet Jung.
Director: Jody Lee Lipes
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 75 minutes. No offensive material. Playing at: Coral Gables Art Cinema.