The Creative Process at NYCB Captured in a New Documentary Film

Classic Arts Features   The Creative Process at NYCB Captured in a New Documentary Film
On February 8, the curtain rises on a new ballet by New York City Ballet Resident Choreographer and Soloist Justin Peck. For anyone who sees it and wonders how it, or any new ballet for that matter, leaps from the choreographer's brain to the Company's panoramic stage, insights abound in Ballet 422.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, the feature-length documentary film by Jody Lee Lipes, made in cooperation with NYCB and sponsored by Vacheron Constantin, will be released nationwide on February 6. (In New York City, Ballet 422 will run at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, and Landmark Sunshine Cinema on the Lower East Side.)

The film's numerical title refers to Paz de la Jolla, the third ballet Mr. Peck created for the Company and the 422nd ballet created for New York City Ballet. (His new 2015 ballet, set to Aaron Copland's iconic Rodeo, is number 434.)

During the two months that Mr. Peck brought Paz de la Jolla to life leading up to its January 31, 2013 premiere, Mr. Lipes was there with his camera. He captured the myriad details - from lighting rehearsals to fabric dyeing - that are invisible to audiences but built into the ballet's DNA. The resulting footage is deftly edited in cinema v_rit_ fashion without talking heads or voiceovers, so you feel like you're a savvy fly on a wall of the David H. Koch Theater, witnessing the birth of a new ballet.

At the heart of the film is Mr. Peck, confident and articulate but still, at the time, dancing in the Corps and finding his footing in choreography's ancillary tasks, such as conferring with the orchestra conductor and costume designers. You watch him alone in the studio, trying out steps he films on his iPhone. You observe him concentrating as Principal Dancer Tiler Peck tries on some freshly minted movements. "You make the mistakes look really good so I think we're going to keep them," he tells her. And you view him in the audience at the premiere in suit and tie, his gaze riveted to the stage.

"The film shows Justin at an interesting time in his career," says Mr. Lipes, whose film was warmly received last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. "It's after his first ballet but he's still learning. He's moved on from that now."

A filmmaker for over 10 years, Mr. Lipes' credits include direct- ing the hit TV show Girls and filming Trainwreck, a romantic comedy directed by Judd Apatow to be released this summer. But as a co-director of the 2010 film NY Export: Opus Jazz, an exhilarating rendering of Jerome Robbins' ballet shot through- out New York City, he's no stranger to the dance world or NYCB. "I love when people really dedicate themselves to what they do, and dancers are a perfect example of that," he says.

As often happens with artistic endeavors, serendipity had a hand in Ballet 422's inception. It all started with an NYCB Works in Progress panel moderated by Ellen Bar, the Company's Director of Media Projects, a former Soloist, and Mr. Lipes' wife. "I went to cheer her on," recalls Mr. Lipes, who met Ms. Bar while filming Opus Jazz. But he came away impressed by Mr. Peck, who coached Tiler Peck through a snippet of Year of the Rabbit during the program. "I was intrigued by the fact that he was such a young guy, and he didn't seem flustered or aware of the audience. He just beelined from his seat to the stage and started talking to Tiler like no one else was in the room. As a documentary filmmaker you want a subject who isn't going to change when the camera turns on."

When Mr. Lipes learned Mr. Peck was about to begin a new bal- let, he asked if he could shadow him with his camera. "Jody has a very quiet presence," says Mr. Peck. "I didn't really notice him when he was there, so I think he was able to capture something very honest and show how the company works in a very true way."

With the exception of the ballet's premiere, when he needed to record simultaneous action from the audience and backstage, Mr. Lipes filmed almost everything himself. A lone camera is less distracting to the subjects. And there was the funhouse aspect of filming in mirrored rehearsal studios. "It's hard enough to keep yourself out of the shot, let alone another camera," says Mr. Lipes.

The trickiest maneuver was capturing Mr. Peck surrounded by audience members at the ballet's premiere. Though it looks as if the choreographer was filmed from the seat in front of him, a camera with a Superbowl-style telephoto lens was positioned in the lighting grid of an upper ring.

The film's ending, which we won't divulge, is a reason Mr. Lipes is a fan of v_rit_ documentaries. His original finish evaporated when real-life scheduling intruded. But the alternative proved far more insightful and poetic. "I think some of the best stuff comes from what you can't predict, can't control, and can't imagine," he says.

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