“Ballet 422,” or the Hard Work of Art

BALLET422_PRESS_01Having just returned from a screening of Ballet 422 at the Tribeca Film Festival I can say that it is one of the finest dance films I’ve seen, far surpassing the director Jody Lee Lipes’ previous foray into the genre, New York Export: Opus Jazz. Heretical as it may sound, I found it better than Frederick Wiseman’s documentary La Danse, the film it most closely resembles, partly because much of the choreography in that documentary was so dire. (At almost three hours, it was also excessively long.) Like Wiseman, Lipes doesn’t identify the characters, my one complaint. But he does well to focus his film on a single subject, the creation of a ballet, from start to finish. It’s a nailbiter.

The ballet is Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, made for New York City Ballet last winter. (It was the company’s 422nd work, hence the movie’s title.) I was there for the première in January and can attest to the fact that it was a pretty thrilling event; the ballet is fast-paced, full of detail, imaginative, and deeply musical. It also includes a real coup, a convincing underwater dream-ballet. A couple (Amar Ramasar and Sterling Hyltin) falls asleep on the beach; the woman rises and is drawn ever deeper into the waves. The dancers’ bodies, intertwined and intricately patterned by Peck, become the sea’s eddies and foam. Peck has a knack for creating vivid, and very specific, imagery with groups of dancers. It’s not just pretty pretty.

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The film shows the process from the very beginning, as Peck works alone in the studio, listening to Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta la Jolla on a boom box and video-taping short phrases of movement with his IPhone. These ideas are translated into sketches drawn with stick figures and dots representing floor patterns and shapes. There’s no talking, no voiceover, just work. Rehearsals are periods of intense creativity, experimentation, and problem-solving, but also of close observation and rigorous imitation. Peck doesn’t let anything slide. In one scene he corrects a young dancer who is trying to recreate a complex set of movements for the arms. She does it again and again. Each time he says “no,” not unkindly, but unwilling to settle for anything less than what he has in mind.

The sheer amount of work is staggering. At several points in the film, one or another dancer, including Peck (then in the corps de ballet) looks almost inhumanly tired. The work is also mentally exhausting, requiring precise imitation, memory, analysis, instant playback. In one of the most fascinating moments in the film the dancers do nothing more than count out the beats in the music, figuring out how the steps fit into the notes. There’s no artificially-constructed melodrama here—the drama is the work itself.

We see fabrics being dyed and cut, hairstyles being sprayed rigidly into place, tempi adjusted by the conductor, musical dynamics discussed, lights experimented with. (The one thing we don’t see, oddly enough, is the company’s artistic director, Peter Martins.) The film-makers have been given remarkable access, even to the inner sanctum of company class, where wan-faced dancers in motley rehearsal gear sweat and go through their daily paces. The backstage areas are unadorned, even dingy. This is the factory-floor where illusions are created.

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Peck is involved in every aspect of the production: costumes, lighting, musical interpretation. Calm, blank-faced, mouth slightly open, he watches, scouring details, and then goes home—we see him taking the elevated subway line to his small apartment where a portrait of Jerome Robbins hangs on the wall—to watch rehearsal videos and fine-tune some more. At only twenty-five (now twenty-six) he shows surprising self-assurance and composure. The only time he seems to lose his nerve is during a slightly awkward interaction with the orchestra—certain boundaries are not be crossed.

As opening night approaches, tension mounts, faces become strained. It’s surprising how few smiles one sees. A few people manage to keep their good humor and spread it around: Cameron Grant, the pianist, with his perfect hair and calm demeanor, is an unflappable, fatherly presence. Amara Ramasar, the male lead in the ballet, seems to be in a perennial good mood. Moments before going onstage, his tense ballerina asks if they should run through their duet one last time. He smiles and says, with gusto, “don’t worry, I’m just going to grab those hips.” Her jaw relaxes ever so slightly.

Ballet 422 is about as close as many of us will ever get to the creation of a new work of art. The dancers are revealed for what they are; phenomenal technicians, willing and intelligent collaborators, tired bodies. At the screening I attended, the dancing, especially by Tiler Peck (no relation) drew gasps from the audience. But another thing also shone through: a kind of loneliness at the heart of the process. At the end of the day, it all comes down to one person, creating something out of nothing.

 

Two Young Choreographers on the Move: Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher

Last week I attended lecture-dems showcasing the work of two young choreographers, both of whom are also members of New York City Ballet. I wonder what they’re putting in the rosin over there at the StateTheatre, because there really seems to be an upsurge in creativity in the ranks. (But why, still, no women choreographers?) The notion that ballet is a languishing form flies out of the window when one sees their work and hears them talk.

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Works & Process talk at the Guggenheim: Ellen Barr, Justin Peck, Michael P. Atkinson, Sufjan Stevens and Karl Jensen. Photo by Jacklyn Meduga for Works & Process at the Guggenheim.

You’ll find a discussion of the two events here, for DanceTabs. And a short excerpt:

“It has now become clear that ballet is undergoing an important evolution, and I’m not referring to the overwrought, effect-laden mannerisms of much of what is referred to as “contemporary ballet.” This is a change that is blossoming within ballet’s own idiom, using the specific skill-set of ballet dancers: jumping, turning, balancing, sliding, skittering on pointe, flickering the legs at warp speed, tipping and extending hyper-articulate bodies.”

Twyla Gets Countrified

I interviewed the members of the old-time string-band Carolina Chocolate Drops as well as Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild for this piece on Twyla Tharp’s new dance suite set to five of the Drops’ songs.The dance premièred at BAM last week (unfortunately I was out of town). The band has a wonderfully down-home, and yet modern sound, and they’re excellent musicians. Each of them plays several instruments, from fiddle to banjo to various kinds of percussion and jug. Rhiannon Giddens, the informal leader of the group, has a strong, intelligent singing style (she trained as an opera singer). And of course their kind of music is right up Twyla Tharp’s alley.

You can read the piece here.

And here are the Drops in their infectious “Cornbread and Butterbeans”:

Mapping Shen Wei’s Course

Shen Wei by Ron Antonelli for the Times.

Shen Wei by Ron Antonelli for the Times.

I wrote a feature on Shen Wei for The Times Arts and Leisure section this week, tracing the progress of Shen Wei since his arrival in the US in 1995. In a few weeks (opening April 29), his company will be performing a revival of his 2005 work “Map,” a dizzying puzzle of a dance set to Steve Reich, at Judson Church. This time, though, the piece will be set in the round, with many “fronts.” Shen’s original designs, hand-painted sketches by his composition notes, had to be re-imagined. Shen came up with an ingenious solution: applying the sketches to balloons that will float above the dancers. In addition, Shen will be performing a new ten-minute solo, set to music by Arvo Pärt and John Adams.

 

No Place Like Home

Tom Pecinka in The Soldier’s Tale. Photo by Dana Astmann.

Tom Pecinka in The Soldier’s Tale. Photo by Dana Astmann.

The Yale departments of drama and music and “Yale in New York” teamed up for a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat at Zankel Hall, a bitter story that perfectly captures the hopelessness felt in Europe after the end of the First World War. Stravinsky was eking out a meager existence at the time (1918), separated from his former life and his bank accounts by war and revolution. He turned to a format he know from his childhood, the fairground theatrical, creating a lean, acidic little story. What’s surprising is how timely it still feels. The Yale players performed it well; the new choreography, by Emily Coates, was well-suited to the tale, and the young actors flung themselves into the tricky, folk-inflected steps. You can read my review for DanceTabs here.

 

Season of Taylor

Sean Mahoney of Paul Taylor in Perpetual Dawn. Photo by Paul B. Goode.

Sean Mahoney of Paul Taylor in Perpetual Dawn. Photo by Paul B. Goode.

Another Paul Taylor season has ended at Lincoln Center. The company is looking fine, and the theater seemed well-filed on all but one of my forays. The dancers put an an impressive twenty-three works over the course of three weeks. But such diversity comes with a down side—not every piece holds up, especially when seen alongside Taylor’s best. It turns out there are a lot of run-of-the-mill Taylor dances. But then, you see something like Black Tuesday or Cloven Kingdom or, in its own bizarre way, Byzantium, and are once again amazed by this man’s imagination. How does Taylor come up with Byzantium, with its archaic priestly figures and orgy scenes? Taylor’s imagination is a mystery, and we like it that way.

I reviewed the season here, for DanceTabs.

And here is a short excerpt: This was “the company’s final New York appearance as a purely Taylor-centered enterprise. As of next year, it will transform itself into a mixed repertory troupe, performing the works of other modern-dance-makers alongside those of Taylor. This is a major transformation, and one that is not easy to envision at this point. Which choreographers will be represented? How will the works be chosen? How will they look on these particular dancers, so practiced in the fluidly athletic, muscular style Taylor has honed over many decades? How will his dancers feel about the change?”