Juggling it all at New York City Ballet

Peck leading NYCB rehearsal

Forget Year of the Rabbit. 2013 has been the year of Justin Peck. After receiving great praise for his collaboration with indie singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens a year ago, the 26-year-old dancer-choreographer has been tackling principal roles and choreographing new dances. Critics praise his work for its intricate patterning and movement that shows off New York City Ballet’s sterling corps de ballet. This season, he continues to juggle his two roles in the company as he creates another work with a commissioned score by Stevens, to premiere in the spring.

—Kristin Schwab

Balancing roles at NYCB: “I usually wake up and spend 7:30–9:30 preparing for my rehearsal. Then I take company class and rehearse as a dancer for two hours, followed by two hours of choreographic rehearsal, lunch and another couple hours of dancing. Then there’s a show and after, I finally go home and pass out. I’m still trying to figure out balancing it, but I feel invigorated. Caffeinated almost. Being on both ends shows me a side of ballet I wouldn’t otherwise be able to understand. Because I can appreciate what it’s like to craft a ballet, I am starting to put more care into every step I do onstage.”

Being a colleague and the boss: “At first, I was really worried about it. But it’s a team effort—not me against them, but us together working for this art. Most of the time it’s an advantage. For instance, Robbie [Fairchild] and I were roommates at SAB. I’ve been watching him closely since he was 15. I know him as a person and a dancer inside and out, so I feel like I can harness his abilities, personality and style to the extent an outsider wouldn’t be able to.”

His choreographic process: “NYCB is a fast-paced institution. For Year of the Rabbit [a 30-minute ballet], I had four to five weeks with the dancers. I try to prepare as much as I can. I go on an extensive hunt for music and listen to it hundreds of times. Then I experiment with movement vocabulary and record a couple phrases on video. I want to build a structure before I get in the studio, because I find it leaves more room for improvising—you have to know the original plan to take a detour. A composer can orchestrate every detail before he gives it to his players, but choreography involves working with real bodies and minds.”

Collaborating with Stevens: “He was much more involved than I expected when we worked on Year of the Rabbit. He began an obsessive sort of curiosity about the company, its history and Balanchine. He’ll come to the ballet with me, and we usually get dinner after to discuss what we saw. He even buys his own tickets now. Our dialogue is very detailed. I’m really lucky that I’m able to access great minds like his. And it’s valuable to have an artist who isn’t in the dance world look at your work.” DT

Training: began dancing at 13 in San Diego, California, before enrolling at the School of American Ballet

Performance: NYCB apprentice in 2006; corps de ballet in 2007; soloist in 2013

Choreography: first work in 2009 at Columbia University; Choreographer in Residency of NYCB’s New York Choreographic Institute (2011–2012); has made over 15 works, including commissions by Miami City Ballet and L.A. Dance Project

Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of NYCB

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