Choreographer Justin Peck’s unprecedented success with New York City Ballet

Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic March 29

If Cary Grant had ever made a screwball comedy about ballet, it might look like what was happening on a recent afternoon at the New York City Ballet, where a lighthearted, slightly perplexed young man is creating a dance.

His name is Justin Peck, and he brings Grant’s comic flair to mind for more than his easy physical command, dark good looks and geek-chic glasses.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

“What do you think?” Peck asks the dancers who are skimming around the studio like darting goldfish. “It’s kind of like a weird, surprising moment.” He shows them a move, a leap leading into a whipping turn and ending with a bounce — and it is a weird, surprising moment, because during the spin Peck’s glasses fly off his nose and crash to the floor by the pianist.

There are gasps and smothered giggles. Albert Evans, who is assisting Peck, picks the glasses up without a word, in a way that suggests he has to do this a lot. Peck, meanwhile, doesn’t break his stride. He keeps dancing and talking, straight-faced, oblivious to how funny it all is — the shooting-star spectacles, Evans’s deadpan. When he gets his glasses back, Peck pokes them into place with a finger as he puzzles out his next move.

Unintended slapstick, laughter, one-liners, sarcastic applause: It’s all here in this rehearsal studio, where it feels like the Future of Ballet has swept in and stubbed its toe and yet will prevail glamorously in the end. Because what Peck, 26, is putting together looks like it will be great fun, and possibly magnificent.

Peck is a soloist with the New York City Ballet and its newest choreographic phenomenon. In just two seasons, he has made six ballets for the powerhouse company, including the untitled work in progress. This week at the Kennedy Center, City Ballet will perform Peck’s acclaimed 2012 work “Year of the Rabbit,” a ballet for 18 dancers. It runs Wednesday and Thursday, sharing the program with works by esteemed veterans Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. This will be the first time Washington audiences can judge for themselves the choreographer who has amassed unprecedented success at such a young age.

Next season Peck will create works for two other heavy hitters: Pacific Northwest Ballet and Miami City Ballet, which premiered its first Peck piece last winter. He has more projects lined up for 2016.

Peck’s work in progress will have its world premiere at the New York City Ballet gala May 8, with the company’s orchestra playing a commissioned score by folk-electronica composer Sufjan Stevens. (An orchestral version of Stevens’s driving, at times ethereal music also accompanies “Year of the Rabbit.”)

It’s a big deal: Peck’s work will be one of only two premieres of City Ballet’s spring season, which marks the company’s 50th anniversary of performing at its home theater at Lincoln Center. At the gala, dancers from the 1960s will be saluted onstage, dancers who performed for such greats as New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, when they were at the peak of their choreographic powers as they put their thoughts into motion.

The way Peck is doing now.

But were their rehearsals this much fun?

Watching Peck’s ballet take shape is an exhilarating rush, like seeing pearls whirl down a water slide, free and inevitable and utterly delightful.

It is also an exercise in comic confusion. The pianist races along with terrific propulsion; the music is all galloping drive and slippery swoops. Trying to keep up, two dancers bump into each other; another one stumbles and is nearly steamrolled by the next wave of flying legs.

Peck, sporting a few days’ razor stubble, looks a little Mardi Gras-eccentric in a bicycle-print T-shirt and a wide-striped coverall folded over at his waist so the shoulder straps dangle and flap as he rockets around. He sings out the beat, pokes at his glasses, tries to back up and bumps into the mirror.

“Don’t jump!” he tells his dancers. Then, “Jump like popcorn!” And, casually, he orders the impossible: “Don’t leave your feet on the floor too long.”

Then there are the times when he is not at all sure how to get past the count of five.

“Can I have, uh . . .” He stops mid-sentence, mouth open, a finger in the air. Seconds pass. Little eternities tick by. Dust settles, continents drift, the universe expands. Global warming? The crisis here is the dancers’ muscles, cooling.

“Sorry,” Peck says finally, with a laugh. “I just went to a different world there. Can you guys . . .” Another open-mouthed pause. Everyone waits. Lacking the words, Peck demonstrates; his lanky body knows what he wants. He whips around, stops, changes direction. The others copy him.

He pulls up the neck of his T-shirt and chews it thoughtfully.

“Harrison,” he says. “You’re going the wrong way.”

And: “That’s weird. I thought I told you guys to go that way.”

“Those were terrible lines! But we’ll fix them later.”

Two hours go by.

“I am going to drink so much vodka tonight,” murmurs one dancer to another with an extravagant eye roll.

Valuing collaboration

Choreography is a slow, messy business. Balanchine was known for relatively speedy work; it took him an hour of studio time to create one minute of a finished dance. For Robbins, five hours of toil netted one minute of dancing. Peck estimates that it takes him about two hours per minute, putting him on the swifter side.

“It’ll never look exactly like I planned it,” he says after the rehearsal, stretched out on a couch in a lounge down the hall. It’s after 7 p.m., and he has been bouncing around for five hours with this piece. His day started well before that, with two hours of company class and a “Year of the Rabbit” rehearsal.

Despite his preparations — sketching formations, reading the musical score — his choreography “gets sent in a different direction,” he says, “due to the fact that I’m working with these living, breathing human beings who can think on their own. Versus someone who’s just painting with paint.”

Oh, to just paint with paint! Paint doesn’t get tired. Paint doesn’t get its left and right mixed up. Paint doesn’t show you something you hadn’t thought of before.

Peck values the collaborative atmosphere. “My philosophy on choreography is that the making of a ballet is a team effort, and we’re in this together. It’s not me hammering on them. It’s more about how we can elevate this piece collectively to something great.”

Hear the echoes of his California upbringing? Of today’s no-boundaries environment, where so many intimacies of life filter out to the global digital world? It’s unusual for an artist to let a stranger look over his shoulder as he creates, but Peck welcomed a critic into his rehearsal. He also allowed cameras to film him making a ballet last year. The resulting documentary, titled “Ballet 422” — Peck’s piece was the 422nd ballet created at New York City Ballet — was selected for next month’s Tribeca Film Festival.

What’s notable in Peck’s work is the way he mixes formal patterns and elegant technique with brisk, youthful dash. “Year of the Rabbit” has a Robbins kind of energy: puppyish, wholesome. You see how well Peck knows these dancers — his friends, his partners.

His relationship with principal dancer Teresa Reichlen recently ended; how awkward is that? Not terribly, it seems. He’s given her a prominent role in his new ballet.

There is a certain hive mind in the rehearsal studio. For no discernible reason, the dancers burst out laughing, Peck too, doubling over in hysterics, gasping for breath. There’s a strong shared intimacy, as palpable as the room’s sweaty humidity.

“The process is even more fun than the performance,” says Tiler Peck, a principal dancer who has known Justin Peck since they were students at the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet’s training arm. “If you say, ‘What if I do it this way?’ he’ll listen.” They are both from California, but are not related, though Justin has enjoyed fooling a few people about that. He’s the kind of friend who really pays attention, Tiler Peck says; he’s given her gift certificates for manicures, a favorite indulgence, and as students they’d play on the swings in Central Park.

Peck started dancing late, at 13, after seeing American Ballet Theatre on tour in his hometown of San Diego. Three years later he moved to New York. In his haste to make up for lost time he tore cartilage in his hip socket, and after surgery he was benched for most of the next year.

Choreography went a little more smoothly. Mindy Aloff, a writer and professor, suggested it to him during a dance criticism class he took through Columbia University; she saw he had an analytical eye. He created a pas de deux for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative; soon he had a stint at the New York Choreographic Institute, part of New York City Ballet, where Peck was given a stipend, dancers and studio time. But he has essentially had to teach himself how to make dances.

“It’s a weird art form,” Peck says, taking off his glasses and wiping his face. “It’s a hard art form to figure out and get the experience, ’cause it’s so high maintenance. It’s expensive to get studio space and dancers. My whole first three years, I was sneaking around in the studios and getting kicked out of them. It was kind of depressing.”

So Peck learned by watching others. He was in the original cast of Ratmansky’s “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement,” a witty, hour-long dance-drama with music by Édouard Lalo and a cast of 31, which will be on the Kennedy Center program with Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit.” (The third work will be Wheeldon’s “Soirée Musicale.”)

“That was the first time I saw a real genius actually assemble a ballet from scratch. It was a very influential moment,” Peck says.

In this most elemental art form — moving human bodies around — mystery seems to be the chief ingredient. The art of it is invisible, indefinable, difficult to teach or pass on. Not even those who have spent decades living and breathing ballet, standing in front of the master choreographers, have words for it.

“When I see something that has promise, my reaction is visceral, and I just know it deserves another chance,” says Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of the New York City Ballet. “In my business, it’s hard to put into words what it is.” But he sees it in Peck’s work. “Structure, musicality, the ability to make images, to make dancers look good, all of those things.”

Peck says he’s too exhausted by the end of the day to be stressed about his premiere. He comforts himself with something Balanchine said, which he repeats with a knowing laugh: “The most important part of the ballet is the first two minutes and the last two minutes; everything else doesn’t matter.”

The globe-trotting life of many ballet choreographers isn’t for Peck, not yet. He says he still wants to dance, and he will take only two outside commissions a year. He prefers to stay at City Ballet, and work with his friends.

The New York City Ballet

performs at the Kennedy Center from Tuesday-Sunday. The company performs a mixed bill including Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit” on Wednesday and Thursday, and George Balanchine’s evening-length “Jewels” on Tuesday and Friday-Sunday. Tickets, 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org

READ MORE:

Peck’s thoughts on Beyoncé, the Super Bowl halftime show and why he’s so over “Sleeping Beauty.”

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