Since his career as a dance maker took off just five years ago, New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck has traveled the country creating works for companies large and small. Personally, professionally and artistically, he’s been deeply involved in ballet across America.
Fittingly, having lived its moniker, Peck curated part of the “Ballet Across America” series at the Kennedy Center April 17 and April 19-23.
“I’ve been exercising a different part of my brain,” Peck says with a laugh in a recent phone interview. “I’m used to just creating new ballets.” Instead, the 29-year-old has taken on a directing role, selecting works and companies he admires and bringing them together. He calls it a “personal-taste sort of program.”
This is the fourth iteration of the Ballet Across America series, which debuted in 2008. In the past, the Kennedy Center’s director of dance programming, Meg Booth, curated the series, which allows generally small, regional companies to perform a single work on a shared program with other troupes. This year, for the first time, the Kennedy Center chose two guest curators: Peck, a New York City Ballet soloist as well as a choreographer, and American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland.
Neither one is dancing in the series; their contributions have been behind the scenes. They each put together a program that will run for three performances.
Copeland’s, from April 19 to 21, features the Nashville Ballet, in Artistic Director Paul Vasterling’s “Concerto”; the New York-based Complexions Contemporary Ballet in Dwight Rhoden’s “Star Dust,” a tribute to David Bowie; and the Black Iris Project, performing Artistic Director Jeremy McQueen’s “Madiba,” a tribute to former South African president Nelson Mandela, who died in 2013.
Peck’s program runs April 22 and 23, with L.A. Dance Project, performing Artistic Director Benjamin Millepied’s “Hearts and Arrows”; the Joffrey Ballet, in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise”; the contemporary-dance troupe Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, offering Abraham’s “The Gettin’,” and two Miami City Ballet dancers in a duet from Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit.”
“It’s as much about the companies that are being presented as it is about the specific works,” he says.
L.A. Dance Project has “some of the most exciting dancers working right now. They have a strong ballet base, but at the same time their range spans well beyond that, into modern dance and new and contemporary choreography,” he continues. “Hearts and Arrows,” in which the dancers wear heeled boots instead of ballet slippers and perform to music by Philip Glass, epitomizes that mix of athleticism and classical form, Peck says.
He and Abraham have formed something of a mutual admiration society, checking out each other’s new works. “The Gettin’ ” channels the activist spirit in the seminal 1960 jazz album by virtuoso drummer Max Roach, “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.” Peck attended the 2007 premiere of Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise,” created for Wheeldon’s short-lived company Morphoses. It left an unforgettable impression of an artist deeply inspired by his dancers. “It’s a ballet that hasn’t been seen that much,” Peck says, and he was delighted when the Joffrey Ballet revived it.
Both Peck and Copeland are established names in their art forms, but handing them the reins for a major event on the Kennedy Center’s ballet subscription series is a risk. Why did the center decide on guest curators, and on these artists?
“We are an artist-driven institution,” says Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter. “My concept has been about bringing artists more centrally into the development of the programming we’re doing. So often artists are traveling the world and collaborating with different artists, so they bring another perspective to it.”
Booth selected Peck and Copeland to ensure “balance and opportunity” in the programs, she says. “I wanted a choreographer’s voice in Justin and the voice of a dancer in Misty. And a balance in gender. And I very intentionally made sure we had an African American represented.”
Copeland declined to comment, but in a video clip on the Kennedy Center’s website, she notes the opportunities that the companies she picked offer to African American dancers.
The series opens with a one-off program on April 17, hosted by New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns, featuring dancers from ABT, Miami City Ballet and Nashville Ballet, among others. The works include excerpts from Peck’s ballet “Chutes and Ladders” and Antony Tudor’s 1975 “The Leaves Are Fading” and other pieces. There will also be two short, world-premiere films by Ezra Hurwitz featuring ABT dancers.
The Ballet Across America series will be performed in the Kennedy Center Opera House April 17 and April 19-23. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.