THE NEW CRITERION, February 2019
Hunt & Peck
On the choreographer Justin Peck at the City Ballet.
“New Peck” might as well become a permanent fixture on the Lincoln Center marquee. This month a new ballet by Justin Peck premieres on the stage of the David H. Koch Theater—once again, as a headliner for City Ballet’s annual program of “New Combinations.” This fourth collaboration with the songwriter Sufjan Stevens, set to full orchestra, is simply billed, initially, as New Peck I (Winter 2019).
The wunderkind of the New York City Ballet, Justin Peck has already choreographed more than thirty original works, a number that has outpaced his age (he is thirty-one). This he has done as both a soloist in the company and as only the second “resident choreographer” in City Ballet’s history, following Christopher Wheeldon, who held the title from 2001 to 2008.
Considering this balletic fecundity, it is all the more remarkable to note that Peck was a latecomer to ballet. He started in tap, in his native Southern California, and only moved to New York’s School of American Ballet in 2003. In 2006 he was made an apprentice at City Ballet and joined the corps in 2007. He created his first ballet in 2009, for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative, and enrolled that year in City Ballet’s New York Choreographic Institute. By 2014, at City Ballet’s spring gala, he had already premiered his sixth ballet for the company, the forty-two-minute Everywhere We Go. Alastair Macaulay, then the chief dance critic for The New York Times, hailed it as “diffuse and brilliant,” and “young Mr. Peck . . . a virtuoso of the form.” In elevating him to resident choreographer later that year, Peter Martins, City Ballet’s storied former ballet master-in-chief, called the promotion “sort of inevitable.”
There does indeed seem to be an inevitable buoyancy to Peck’s tidal rise. His ballets convey a California ease that is not so much sunny as sun-baked. Rather than fight the current, he channels musical flow. Paz de la Jolla, his 2013 ballet set to Bohuslav Martinů’s Sinfonietta la Jolla of 1950, begins in beachy bliss, with splendid Esther Williams–like swimsuit costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, supervised by Marc Happel, stirred into an eddying, swirling reef of abstract, fluid motion.
Peck is most accomplished in such ensemble work, which here transforms into an ocean. Arms and legs trace the patterns of rolling surf. On the day I saw it, Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar became engulfed in the waves, while a third dancer, Georgina Pazcoguin, swam out for the rescue. Peck builds energy out of human shapes. He taps the increasingly chiseled strength of young dancers to create acrobatic displays that coalesce and disperse in swirls of limbs.
Peck’s architectonic sense, his use of arms and legs to create lines of structure, has been on display from the start. Year of the Rabbit, his breakout work of 2012, begins with a solo dancer spinning out from the tick-tocking gears of a remarkably complex human timepiece. His sprightly Scherzo Fantastique of 2016, once again with costumes by Bartelme and Jung, here set against a Fauvist backdrop by the painter Jules de Balincourt, is all spring and no fall. Arms and fingers shoot up to become the woody branches and verdant canopy of the forest primeval.
No one should wish to cork up the outpouring of such young talent. Yet there is nevertheless a sense that Peck’s youthful froth might improve if bottled and laid down to age. Something is missing in all the spume that needs to come forward in maturity—a human feeling calling from the deep.
Peck’s ballets are Instagram-optimized—just as the millennial choreographer himself betrays little personal affect in front of the ever-present modern lens. If not designed for social media outright, his works are nevertheless socially mediated creations. His dancers look past rather than into each other. His dances are all surface and no depth. The interpersonal partnering of the pas de deux, the essential romance of man and woman, loses out to internetworked movement. Here is ballet not as consummate courtship but rather as information flow.
As seen in Jody Lee Lipes’s 2014 documentary Ballet 422, which tracks the creation of Paz de la Jolla in laborious detail, Peck is nothing if not humble about his abilities and deferential to the traditions of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, the idolized founding choreographers of the company. Peck is a workman, and often a fine craftsman, of balletic form. He is calm and likable. His interactions with the late Albert Evans, the City Ballet dancer and ballet master, are especially moving to see. He also seems self-effacing to a fault. Worried of “overstepping my boundaries,” in one scene he approaches the conductor to give the orchestra a pep talk:
Guys, hi, I’m the choreographer. I don’t know if I know all of you, but I’m Justin Peck. I just want to say that my whole process of choreographing is really really really based on the music. And everything I do is about exposing the details and the complexities and the textures of the orchestra. It’s really really important to play with a lot of energy and vigor, especially in this piece. I would really appreciate that so much. I’m really looking forward to this premiere and everything. So, merde.
Only elevated to the position of company soloist in 2013, Peck was still a member of the corps de ballet when he debuted Paz de la Jolla. For the premiere, he takes the subway and carries his suit in a dry-cleaning bag across Broadway. He watches its opening from the orchestra, then at intermission rushes backstage to dance in Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH. For every 1 percent of inspiration, Peck undoubtedly gives 99 percent in perspiration.
Yet Peck’s intimate proximity to the craft of dance, and to the craftsmen of his company, has oddly created some estrangements in his works’ execution. One explanation may be his reliance on video for translating the developments of the studio onto the stage. Through the lens of Ballet 422, we see the many lenses that capture and compress his choreography. His creations begin on iPhone. Peck uses the propped-up camera of his smartphone to record his own movements as he translates music to dance. Developing his choreography in ensemble, he reviews the digital video of his dancers’ studio work as a criminologist might review a surveillance tape. And laptop video is ever present as he unites his choreography with the lighting, costumes, and orchestration of the dress rehearsal.
Digital video has undoubtedly enabled Peck to work remarkably fast—two months, we learn, to create Paz de la Jolla—while remaining an active dancer. But the digital screen can also turn felt movement into a succession of flickering moments. This is why his work translates well to film; he is the choreographer for 2018’s Red Sparrow and Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming reboot of West Side Story. In person, his dances resemble stop-motion animation—action without interaction. The lens flattens emotion. It can quickly dehumanize intimate expression and exchange.
Such a consideration might also apply to the other recent headline-makers of City Ballet. These days it seems that Justin Peck is the only good news still coming out of the company. It is all a remarkable changement of balletic fate. Over most of the past decade, it appeared as if City Ballet could do no wrong. Its leader, Peter Martins, was the tough-minded veteran Balanchine dancer who carried his company from its founding era into the modern one. He mentored talent, such as Peck’s own, and championed a youthful, all-American image in his company. His series of online publicity videos, for instance, narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, featured his rising dancers as reality-television contestants. The videos seemed like textbook examples of how to use new media to reposition legacy cultural institutions.
Of course, it helps to have a warhorse such as Balanchine’s Nutcracker to pay the bills of your online publicity machine, as well as a top talent feeder under your control in the form of the School of American Ballet and a city full of balletomanes and ballet moms to fill the seats. And, of course, it all resulted in a carefully choreographed online performance, which has now seen its own curtain descend.
First to exit the stage was Martins himself. According to accusations that the company has denied, this dancer who debuted with City Ballet in 1967 as Apollo ended his career as Dionysus. He came to rule both the company and its school as an absolute monarch, imposing his hot-tempered will and his cool-tempered choreography with impunity. Whenever I saw him pacing the halls of the Koch Theater, he reminded me of a Roger Moore–era Bond villain about to open his shark-tank chute. In the hashtag era, if nothing else, his leadership style was poised to take a tumble. After a leave of absence, he retired.
Then the other toe shoe dropped. In September, Alexandra Waterbury, a graduate of the School of American Ballet, sued a number of City Ballet’s principal male dancers—as well as the School, the Company, and one of its patrons—for a conspiracy of sexual degradation. According to the complaint, last year Waterbury discovered that Chase Finlay, her boyfriend at the time and a principal dancer of the company, had taken intimate photos and videos of her against her knowledge. Finlay had not only recorded this material but, as the complaint continues, also shared and discussed it in explicit and degrading terms through text messages with other men in the company.
The details in the complaint are shocking, and also compromising if it is, in fact, determined that a “fraternity-like atmosphere” at City Ballet “condoned, encouraged, fostered, and permitted an environment” in which this could happen, as the complaint maintains. Regardless of its legal outcome, the scandal has already decimated the ranks of top male dancers at the company. Finlay resigned, while Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, two other principals who allegedly engaged in Finlay’s pornographic exchange, were forced out. The company, meanwhile, has so far denied any institutional wrongdoing.
Ballet, of course, has long had its sybaritic side. Against the sin of scandal, Justin Peck appears all the more saintly, even if the world of ballet is so small that Ramasar was Peck’s chosen dancer for his Tony-award-winning choreography in Carousel in 2018, and Ramasar and Finlay can each be seen in Ballet 422. What unfortunately unites their worlds to Peck’s is the smartphone flicker and the Instagram filter.
Contrary to new media, ballet’s enduring allure is its connection to the ancien régime. Descended from the dance of the French court, as The New Criterion’s Laura Jacobs explains in Celestial Bodies, her recent book on ballet, “strict protocols of etiquette—including a refined sense of movement and the ability to dance—governed all. To stay in the king’s good graces, the aristocracy itself had to practice grace.”
For both dancers and audience alike, the courtly grace of ballet can rekindle this lost world. Just so, nothing breaks this spell like an errant ringtone, a recording light, or a sexting scandal. If the Waterbury lawsuit has proven anything, it is that ballet must be reclaimed by its states of grace. The courtly rigor encoded in the forms of ballet has the power to deliver us from digital psychosis. It can turn girls and boys into ladies and gentlemen—if only we remember to turn off our cell phones and be moved by the truth of ballet’s movement. “If someone can find out who you are from the stage,” Albert Evans once said, “that’s everything.”