So You Think You Can Stage a Ballet

Documentary Ballet 422 Reveals parts of the dancemaking process even dancers didn’t know existed.

Justin Peck records himself experimenting with choreography for Paz de la Jolla

During a Q&A session after last night’s Tribeca Film Festival screening of Ballet 422, director Jody Lee Lipes said he’s more interested, as a filmmaker, “in having people do what they do than tell [him] about it.” The comment was in response to an audience member who asked whether he was blocked from interviewing New York City Ballet dancers and administrators. He wasn’t. The familiar “talking heads” interviews were intentionally absent, lending the film a true fly-on-the-wall quality that often felt more like drama than documentary.

The movie follows the creation and premiere of a new ballet—NYCB’s 422nd original work, Paz de la Jolla, by rising-star choreographer and protagonist Justin Peck. Lipes said he intended to cater to a nondance audience, but Ballet 422 offers plenty for dancers to appreciate and lots to learn, as well. As Peck himself commented after the screening, not many dancers know everything that goes into making a ballet.

Costume designer Reid Bartelme (right) created summery styles for New York City Ballet's 422nd original work.

The Ballet 422 cast is an ensemble. Scenes rotate between Peck and his rehearsal crew, the dancers, the costumers, the musicians and the lighting designers. All have their own story arcs, challenges and their own fascinating ways of making it all come together.

Watching a woman whisk a saucepan of boiling liquid, I expected the camera to zoom out on a restaurant scene. But we were in the company costume shop, and the artist was blending a dye to match designers’ swatches for what would become Tiler Peck’s sashed leotard ensemble.

Ballet 422 does not overtly announce dancers' names or ranks, so balletomanes can impress their non-dance friends by identifying  the NYCB celebs (like principals Amar Ramasar and Sterling Hyltin). Chase Finlay is an extra in a few scenes.

Later, costume designer Reid Bartelme carefully fits Tiler. “I wasn’t sure if I stepped into it wrong,” she says, careful not to blame the material when it doesn’t hang perfectly. This manner of respectful and collaborative conversation pervades the film. I incorrectly assumed such established figures in their fields would be more stubborn about getting their ways. Not so. The costumers were concerned about dancers’ comfort; Justin—at the suggestion of his rehearsal pianist—introduced himself to the orchestra and thanked them for their enthusiasm; and the lighting designer went moment-by-moment through the piece with Justin, both parties offering suggestions and adjustments but never demands.

The artist closest to a diva turns out to be the always stunning Sterling Hyltin. She complains that boys don’t understand what pointe shoes are like and fusses at a hair stylist to not make her bun too low. She is balanced by her easygoing partner, the affable Amar Ramasar.

Justin Peck wears a look of almost zombie-like zen concentration while watching his dancers. Here, he works with principal Tiler Peck.

In the end, Justin, dressed in suit and tie, watches the premiere of his Paz de la Jolla from the balcony at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. Then he congratulates the cast backstage before returning to his dressing room to get into costume to perform in a Ratmansky ballet, the final piece that evening. It’s interesting to watch the shift in status. And talk about a jam-packed schedule.

When he addressed last night’s Tribeca Film Festival audience, Justin joked about telling his mother to make sure she saw the film because it reveals so much about what he does at work. “I told her, ‘This is what I’m doing,'” the 26-year-old said, “'when I’m not calling you.'”

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