Ballet Ballet 422

Ballet 422 Review: Getting There is Difficult

Friday, June 05, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Ballet 422



Director: Jody Lee Lipes
Starring: Justin Peck, Tiler Peck, Terling Hyltin
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five.
Available to rent on demand now.

Making anything is hard. Getting a large group of people to help you make something, to collaborate on that thing that looks so perfect in your head, is nearly impossible. That's the task that lies ahead of Justin Peck as he becomes the first active member of the New York City Ballet's corps de ballet – that's the chorus – in director Jody Lee Lipes's new documentary Ballet 422.

At the film's start, Peck is in over his head. He's obviously talented as both a dancer and choreographer, but he's in uncharted waters for anyone in this nearly 70-year-old institution. He's in his mid-20s and has merely shown a knack for something in his free time, then been given the opportunity to prove he can do it. Proving it is the trick, though.

Proving it on as large a scale as he needs to is even more daunting. He has a large group of dancers to wrangle, sometimes literally, costume designers often not quite getting what he wants, and an orchestra he is told – from one of its own members, no less – that isn't as committed to the project as he might wish. But he pulls through, makes it happen, and the audience gets to see his ballet's opening night.

That the ballet will open is never in question. Lipes is a journey-not-destination type of filmmaker, focused on the craft of the thing rather than the end result of it. And Ballet 422, named so because Peck's is the New York City Ballet's 422nd production, is a blood, sweat, and tears trip from the earliest planning stages – Peck alone in a practice studio, recording his “thoughts” (re: dances) on his iPhone – through opening night when Peck, having felt the triumph of staging his own ballet, must return to the chorus for a different show.

Lipes and his partner in documenting, consequence, hammer home the point of “getting there” with every step of the way. Nothing is perfect, least of all Peck. He can't give anything resembling proper direction, offering only vague notions before his dancers' confusion – his words are meaningless to all but him, like when he tells one perplexed dancer to use “tree frog hands” – and relying heavily on his stage manager to get the point across. He is open about his inexperience with the lighting crew, sheepishly asking them how difficult it would be to reset lights if he doesn't have the blocking completely set.

He gets flustered. And it is frustrating when things don't go your way. He has this nugget of perfection in his mind and his own inability to communicate it drives him up a wall, the same way it does anyone. It's a powerful, humanizing thing, and Peck handles himself with grace and humility throughout, more disappointed in himself when he can't get others to understand what he means rather than lashing out for their “inferiority” or something of that persuasion.

But like Peck's journey itself, Ballet 422 feels a little unfinished. The themes are there, the editing is tight at only 75 minutes, and it forms a complete story. However, there is scant information about where Peck's motivation comes from. At the film's start, he already has been allowed to put this show on, he's chosen a piece from 1935 that at times reminds me of how blatant John Williams can be when borrowing themes – see this and tell me it's not the Jurassic Park song – and he's already hard at work on the planning stages. Why does he like this piece? How did he get into choreography? How is his choreography note taking different from others'? Is it rougher, more polished, what? How did he discover he might be more cut out for creating ballets than dancing in them? Was that a difficult decision or something he accepted readily?


You see where I'm going with this. It leaves Ballet 422 a bit empty, but still rich in what it does accomplish. It's a worthwhile experience without being a full one.  

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