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Hunt & Peck

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Hunt & Peck

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.”

Sterling Hyltin, Amar Ramasar, and Tiler Peck in Justin Peck’s  Paz de la Jolla .

Sterling Hyltin, Amar Ramasar, and Tiler Peck in Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla.

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.”

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Take Five

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Take Five

“It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it.” You wouldn't necessarily think to apply the old chestnut from “American Bandstand” to the works of Igor Stravinsky. Yet in his swirling colors, counterposed in thrusting, angular relief, there is something obviously danceable to the modern master—and why his music has called out to such a wide range of dancers and choreographers over the last century.

Scènes de Ballet

Scènes de Ballet

“Stravinsky x Five,” a program from the winter season of the New York City Ballet, brings together five dances by five choreographers interpreting the music of this one composer. It begins with Scènes de Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon’s second work for the company that premiered in 1999. The work calls for sixty-two students, all drawn from The School of American Ballet, who dance in the imaginary reflection of the mirror at the barre of a ballet studio. The conceit is simple but brilliant and one that is ripe for exploration (and the first reason I came to see this program). But it rises or falls in its execution by the students, who must dance with synchronized precision. So here the work is also a demonstration of the next generation of NYCB, made more poignant as these young dancers do rise to the challenge of this ballet.

With a fanciful set by Ian Falconer, who envisions a soaring dance studio overlooking onion domes as though illustrated in a children’s storybook, the work recalls the Imperial Russian origins of both its composer and this company through its founder, George Balanchine. The dancers, starting with two of the youngest ballerinas and building to greater complexities of older students, perform not only as reflections in the imaginary mirror but also as reflections of the legacies of dance they carry forward.

Wheeldon’s choreography exhausts every permutation of the setup and goes too long, finishing in an Esther Williams finale. What should be saved for the conclusion now occurs halfway through. The reflection of a young dancer suddenly breaks from formation. A pas de deux of older dancers enters the “mirror” in a dream sequence imagined by the student on the other side. The unexpected break is the most meaningful moment of the dance, truly breathtaking, as the aspirations of countless hours at the barre are made real.

The Cage

The Cage

Next up is The Cage, Jerome Robbins’s 1951 ballet based on Stravinsky’s 1946 Concerto in D for String Orchestra. Unlike the Stravinsky of Scènes de Ballet, an old-world phantasia he composed for a Broadway review in 1944, this high-modernist work is all fits and starts. Robbins visualized this music in “insect and animal life” with “the female of the species considering the male as prey. This ballet concerns the rites of such a species.” The result is a Rubies feel, with many pigeon-toed struts executed in formation. The inhumanity of the spectacle is heightened by Jennifer Tipton’s stark lighting, teased tufts of hair, a rope web by Jean Rosenthal, and costumes by Ruth Sobotka that render the dancers as sun-deprived and subterranean. The story concerns a “Queen” (Savannah Lowery), a “Novice” (Lauren Lovette), and two male “Intruders” (Jare Angle and Sean Suozzi). But even when well danced, especially by Lovette, the result now comes across as mid-century burlesque, with a femme who is cartoonish fatale.

Eight Easy Pieces

Eight Easy Pieces

Eight Easy Pieces up next takes us from the 1950s to a work by Peter Martins that premiered in 1980. It also struck me as vintage PBS, a spare composition lighting up my Trinitron (which it just might have done). Through the dance Martins gives form to eight piano duets that Stravinsky wrote with easy left- or right-hand parts: three for the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev himself, and five for Stravinsky’s own young children. Here the piano and its shared players are brought right on stage. Martins’s minimalism can come across as fussy, but danced by Rachel Hutsell, Olivia MacKinnon, and Alex Maxwell, all new to their roles, the effect was a delight, with Stravinsky’s music distilled into pixels of color.

Scherzo Fantastique

Scherzo Fantastique

I hope the next dancer-choreographer commission holds up as well, but I doubt it will. Justin Peck is ballet’s millennial machine, a soloist and resident choreographer whose lack of affect (at least as seen in the documentary Ballet 422) is in contrast to the ebullience of his work. For Scherzo Fantastique, which premiered just this summer in Saratoga (and is this twenty-nine-year-old’s eleventh work for NYCB), Peck takes a right at spring and lands his Stravinsky in the full light of summer. With a stunning Fauvist backdrop by Jules de Balincourt, the Bushwick-based French painter, this dance should have everything going for it in its return to modernist animism. But here Peck is all sun and no shade, more MGM than NYCB, with a sensibility that harkens to a golden age when ours calls out for iron.

Stravinsky Violin Concerto

Stravinsky Violin Concerto

Finally it was time for the two masters together: Stravinsky and Balanchine. George Balanchine came to co-found the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet through one of those grand twentieth-century odysseys. Trained in what was then the Imperial Ballet School of Saint Petersburg, he fled the Bolsheviks for Paris where he became Ballet Master in the final years of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Finally, after a turn in Hollywood, he came to New York, where he set about teaching American dancers classical technique infused with Modernist sensibility, with his School of American Ballet training all of his dancers for New York City Ballet. In a program that begins at the barre in old Russia with Scènes, “Stravinsky x Five” concludes with the full fruits of Balanchine’s cultivation of ballet in new America.

Stravinsky Violin Concerto, first choreographed by Balanchine for the Ballets Russes in 1941 and reimagined three decades later for NYCB, is presented here front loaded with principals of the company. “The capabilities of his dancers to dance as he wanted came from his classes,” writes Suki Schorer in the new book Balanchine Teaching. Through the discipline of daily exercises at the barre, the execution of the plié, the tilt of the head in épaulement, and the importance of the fifth position to a body’s vertical center, Balanchine fine tuned the instruments of his company.

Even in the current principals of NYCB, we continue to see his resonance: the fluid flexibility of Maria Kowroski, the floating leaps of Amar Ramasar, the swift strength of Robert Fairchild, and the stunning precision of Sterling Hyltin. ”Balanchine’s choreography, he made clear, came from the music,” Schorer continues—and was arguably never better than from the music of Stravinsky.

Stravinsky x Five” continues with modified casting through this Friday, February 3, at the New York City Ballet.

 

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