Jody Lee Lipes’ documentary Ballet 422 charts the progress of conception to premiere of the New York City Ballet’s 422nd new ballet, developed within the company. New York City Ballet is a large company (91 dancers), with a Santa’s Village staff of musicians, lighting designers, costume designers, seamstresses, makeup/hair artists, all of them working together in one building. The New York City Ballet, of course, presents the classic ballets by the masters of old (like opera, ballet has a reverence for its own past not shared by many other art forms), but this new ballet was commissioned from one of their own company.
Justin Peck, the choreographer, is only 25 years old. He is not a star in the company but a member of the “corps de ballet,” the “lowest” ranking you can get. (Despite the “crowd scene” function of the corps de ballet, dancing like that represents an entire lifetime of focused commitment and hard work. Getting to be a prima ballerina or a ballet star is such an improbable occurrence that there are only a handful at the top. But ballet is so rigorous it’s like gymnastics at an Olympic level. To get to that stage, even “just” to the “corps de ballet”, you have to have been immersed in ballet from the youngest possible age. Everyone’s a thoroughbred.) Justin Peck had participated in a choreography workshop through the auspices of the New York City Ballet and had shown enough promise that the company trusted him, invested in him to create a new ballet. Along with the corps de ballet, he would also use three company members, those who have “names.”
Peck only had two months to create his ballet. Two months to conceive of the ballet, rehearse it, design it, and then put it up on the main stage. It seems impossible, yes? The stress! The pressure! The work involved! And he’s new at it! All eyes are on him! I felt terrified just thinking about it.
Ballet 422 is one of the best process-oriented films about an artform that I have ever seen. It shows every aspect of the collaboration that goes into a production, something that feature films (focusing, as they do, on tension, in-fighting, backstage squabbling, egos) often misses. There just isn’t time in a real process to take things personally. As someone who spent the majority of my youth and on into my 20s and 30s, as an actress, I know that when you’re rehearsing, you try to do what you’re told. (Ballet 422 filled me with longing for that kind of collaboration again. Writing is so solitary.) Even if there are personality differences, even if you bitch about something afterwards, such issues rarely take over the whole process, because the process IS the process. This is true even more so of ballet, because ballet requires discipline. When you are in class, as ballet dancers always are, you do not fight the instructor. Insisting on your individuality just isn’t part of ballet. Even someone like Mikhail Baryshnikov submits to his own art form, as revolutionary a dancer as he was. The whole thing is grounded in exquisite technique, and technique comes through discipline. Ballet 422 shows that in a way that might be revelatory for audience members who assume that all artists are mis-behaved self-involved maniacs. Self-involved maniacs are total anomalies. And ballet is different from any other artform due to the rigor of the training, its classical formality, its unquestioned hierarchy. Submission is as much a part of it as working hard. Even the stars know that they are subordinate to the vision of the production, to the director, to the instructors in dance classes. This type of internalized training and discipline makes for a kind of work ethic that operates such a high level, and so ingrained, that the dancers don’t even have to work at it, or remind themselves of it. It’s like breathing to them, the desire to get it right, to do what the director says, to make it work.
Ballet 422, with all its tension, shows dancers submitting to the young untried choreographer, in rehearsal, in the workshop element of the early sessions. They all work together, using as a template Justin Peck’s individual vision. He knows what he wants, he knows what he wants it to look like. The dancers work to create that: sometimes it requires adjustments, and the dancers suggest those adjustments, based on their own knowledge of the body and its capabilities. In one moment, Peck wonders why a female dancer’s turn doesn’t look the same as her partners (a male), and the ballerina says, “Toe shoes are different.” There’s just a whiff of frustration in her tone: and she’s right and Peck adjusts the movement to accommodate the toe shoes. He’s 25 years old and he’s a “boy” (in ballet terminology: even 30 year old dancers are referred to as “boys” and “girls.”) He hadn’t thought of the toe-shoe differentiation, because he’s a “boy”, but you can bet he will next time.
In rehearsal, Peck sometimes concedes ground, because it is a collaboration and dancers come to the table with their own strengths (especially the three company members), but he also sometimes insists on what he sees for any given move: “No, bring your arms in together … ” Dancer tries it. “No, it should be like this …” He shows her. Dancer tries it again. He stops her. “No, bring arms in together, and then out …” Dancer finally says, “It’s not in my body yet. I’ll get it.” Peck nods, and the rehearsal moves on. She doesn’t throw a tantrum. Neither does he. Again: there simply isn’t time. Also: tantrums may be cathartic but they are not productive and they don’t necessarily lead to better work. That dance-rehearsal scene in All That Jazz is also a portrayal of a highly-stressed work environment, and it’s not at all unrealistic, especially with a demanding choreographer. But more often than not, it’s a process of trying it, getting a correction, trying it again, getting another tip, incorporating the tip, trying it again, and knowing you’ve almost gotten it, but you just have to go over it yourself 50 times to have it be “in” you. THAT’S process.
What respect Ballet 422 shows towards the art, the dancers, how everyone works. There are the costume designers (one of whom keeps saying, “I don’t come from the dance world. How do dancers feel about trailing scarves? How would a dancer feel about a little cut-out in the belly area?” These are valid questions, brought up to the dancers, who answer honestly, and for the most part, say stuff like: “We can work with anything.” And they can.) And then the seamstresses, hand-stitching many of the costumes. The costume fittings, with Justin looking on at times, offering suggestions, saying he wants the male dancers physique to show more, his powerful legs and chest. The costume shop take notes, and go back to the stop to make those adjustments. This quiet work ethic, this easy (although highly pressurized) collaboration, was exhilarating.
Meanwhile, Justin Peck is shown on his quiet commute to and from the theatre. Standing on lonely train platforms. Sitting in his apartment, watching videos of the rehearsal, taking notes. The film begins with him alone in the studio, iPhone propped up to capture his original movements, as he leaps across the floor, and then stops … thinking. He goes to his notebook and draws diagrams, working out the geometry of each dancer, and then goes back to work. The rehearsals show the inexorable development towards performance level. There are stops and starts. You start to see it, whatever it is, come together. The documentary features no talking-heads. Justin Peck does not speak to the camera, telling us his thought process, or what the ballet is “about,” or why he picked the music, a 1930s piece called “Sinfonietta La Jolla” by Bohuslav Martinu. One assumes it is personal. One assumes he has his reasons.
Justin Peck’s youth is one of the most striking aspects of the documentary. Think of the 25-year-olds you know. Many are competent, many are on the way towards being good at what they do, millennial stereotypes be damned. But Peck is on another level. It’s fascinating on the premiere of the ballet: he is shown putting on a suit in the dressing room, adjusting his tie while he looks in the mirror. In that shot alone, do you remember just how young he really is. He suddenly looks like a teenager having to dress up for some high school function.
I felt in awe of him.
The premiere, when it comes, is gorgeously shot, from all sides of the theatre (including from high up in the wings, so that you can see those shifting geometrical shapes of the company down on the stage, those geometrical shapes Peck had worked out in his notebook in the earliest scenes). Peck, sitting in the audience, looking on, is not bathed in triumph, or crying with emotion. He is seriously watching. That’s all he’s doing. Who knows what he sees. Intersecting parabolae of movement. The pinnacle of his career so far. How one dancer’s arm placement is wrong, or sloppy. It could be any of those things. His face tells no tales.
This, too, is an aspect of collaboration that is often missed in theatrical representations of process, or in reality TV “backstage” looks at a competition, where high emotions are the name of the game. It’s all just one big fight, right? No. It almost never is.
In a way, the final scene is the most powerful of all in its portrayal of what ballet is all about, what a dancer is LIKE, his psychology, his focus, his concerns. As from the beginning of Ballet 422, seeing Justin Peck alone in the studio working out his ballet (having only two months to put it all together), what the main takeaway is the work ethic of everyone involved, the full immersion in the process towards production.
The final scene reminds us even more startlingly that there simply isn’t time to take anything personally. Even triumph.
The work is ALL.
Ballet 422 is streaming on Netflix. It’s only an hour and fifteen minutes long. It’s one of the best films of 2015.