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By Astrida Woods
NYCB's youngest principal dancer has gained artistry beyond her years.
Just days before Tiler Peck’s debut as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty—one of the most challenging roles in the classical repertory, and a rite of passage for any ballerina—the cheery dancer breezes into the rehearsal studio wearing a hoodie and a white practice tutu. After a warm greeting to her partner, Gonzalo Garcia, and a quick hug to ballet master Susie Hendl, she launches into a full-out performance of the third-act grand pas deux with plunging fish-dives, sweeping grand ronds de jambe, and sumptuous port de bras, ending in a swirl of chaînés. As Peck herself says, “I’m performing from the minute I start rehearsal. I never have to watch myself in the mirror because I know Susie will catch every little thing.”
Onstage as Aurora, sprinting down the marble steps to join her 16th birthday party, Peck greets guests with the exuberance of a teenager and the pedigree of a princess. In the Rose Adagio she sustains her balances while acknowledging each cavalier. With supple arms and delicate pointes, Peck is at her most lyrical and beguiling in the vision scene. Regal and gracious, Peck and Garcia’s luminous pas de deux caps a brilliant performance. It’s hard to believe this was her debut.
Ironically, Tiler Peck has never been a bunhead. Jazz dance was her first love. Born in Bakersfield, California, she started dance classes at her mom’s studio. At 7 she began private ballet lessons with former Bolshoi ballerina Alla Khaniashvili. “I was doing demi-pliés and tendus forever—and she would only let me do single pirouettes.” But she persevered. Her mother had insisted she study ballet if she wanted to be a good jazz dancer. She also took classes from former NYCB principal Yvonne Mounsey in Santa Monica, and studied with Colleen and Patricia Neary, distinguished NYCB alums. They recognized Peck’s talent and urged her to go to New York and study at the School of American Ballet, NYCB’s official training center.
In California, Peck had an agent and a manager. In addition to her dance classes she studied acting and singing and maintained a straight-A average in school. She worked in movies (Donnie Darko, A Time for Dancing, and Geppetto), and did TV commercials as well as live shows (at ages 9 and 10 she danced on pointe as Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at Universal Studios). “That is what you do when you’re a California jazz kid,” says Peck.
When at 11 she auditioned for the revival of The Music Man on Broadway, directed by Susan Stroman, Peck’s resumé was that of seasoned showbiz veteran. She got the part (Gracie Shinn, the mayor’s daughter) and went to New York. She stayed for the one-year run of the show, living with her grandmother in a tiny apartment—and she also started classes at SAB. It turned out to be Peck’s epiphany: Ballet was her calling.
She returned to SAB for summer courses in 2002 and 2003 and then stayed through the winter. Suki Schorer, her primary teacher, refined Peck’s technique to performance level, and at 15 she became a NYCB apprentice. “I was young,” Peck says, “but I was ready.”
When Peck joined NYCB in 2005 she was 5' 1"—the shortest dancer in the company. Nevertheless she made her mark as the petite virtuoso with the sunny, dimpled smile whose deft pirouettes and springy jumps delighted audiences.
Her boundless enthusiasm and already polished technique inspired Peter Martins to cast Peck and Daniel Ulbricht, another dynamo, as leads in his tour-de-force ballet for the corps, Friandises—both are now principals. And in Balanchine’s Tarantella the pair pulled out all the stops. Her Dewdrop in The Nutcracker and Butterfly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream shimmered with a dynamic vibrancy. “In those ballets,” Peck smiles, “I loved to jump and turn because I thought that was excitement and what everybody wanted.”
With her promotion to soloist the following year, Peck’s roles expanded beyond the razzle-dazzle to a more versatile repertory. She delivered a riveting performance as the traumatized peasant bride in Robbins’ ritualistic Les Noces. Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti cast her in two of his ballets: In Vento, a stark, modern work; and the earthy, cavorting Oltremare. She’ll also dance in his new ballet next month.
Peck discovered her softer side when Damian Woetzel, NYCB’s former superstar, partnered her in Wheeldon’s lyrical Carousel (A Dance) and An American in Paris, and the romantic duet in Robbins’ Fancy Free. They shared a bond onstage from the start. Suddenly there was a new kind of wonderment and fearlessness about her dancing as she swooped around him and over his head in Carousel. Those performances deepened her emotional luster and boosted her confidence.
“What drew me to Tiler,” Woetzel says, “was the way she inhabited the stage, her sense of theatricality. In rehearsals she seeks help, talks about it, and then takes those things and synthesizes them into her work. It certainly enlivened my last years with NYCB.”
Peck considers the partnership with Woetzel pivotal. “Damian educated me on so many levels,” she says. “I learned how to play with the music, and to make certain things softer. Before I tried to do everything on the beat, but Damian showed me how to ‘ride the music.’ ” And he helped her go deeper into her roles. During rehearsals he would engage her in dialogue; ask what her character is thinking, and what motivates the movement. Most of all, she remembers him saying, “Whatever you do, never be predictable.”
There is no denying she has a special affinity with Robbins’ ballets. “Robbins comes more naturally because everything seems to flow together,” she says. While still in the corps, she was cast in his N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz. Martins, stationed in the wings, told her, “I just love watching you in that ballet.” Peck remembers thinking, “But I’m wearing tennis shoes!” In February she made her debut in Robbins’ masterpiece, Dances at a Gathering, as the pink girl. There was a glow about her, an emotional awareness as she connected with everyone around her.
Hendl, impressed by Peck’s astuteness, says, “She is only 21, but artistically Tiler is mature beyond her years.”
An experienced actress from a very young age, Peck says that she loves doing story ballets. “That’s when I get a chance to bring my dancing and acting together.” When Martins cast her as one of the Juliets in his new production of Romeo + Juliet, she savored the process of working with him on developing the role. “That learning experience and dancing with Damian were the beginnings of the transformation of my dancing,” says Peck.
Then a stress fracture in her lower back put her out of action for the last half of 2007. After three months of rest at home in California, and three more months of vigorous physical therapy, Peck was back.
Putting a whole new spin on what it means to grow into a top-tier ballerina, the young dancer returned from her injury stronger than before. She says her arabesque got higher, and she had grown from 5' 1" to 5' 5"—much of it in her legs. “Honestly, it didn’t hit me until they started putting me with taller guys.”
Garcia, who frequently partners Peck (Coppélia, Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Robbins’ Other Dances), says, “Tiler is giving her performance to everybody. It’s not just about her.” Garcia and Peck are a good fit. “We breathe very much the same way when we dance,” he says. “I’m aware of all her preparations and I can feel them. That gives me great coordination and a sense of freedom.”
Last October Peck was promoted to principal. All that year she was so busy premiering ballets that, she says, “I couldn’t sew my shoes fast enough.” A stickler about her pointe shoes, she surrounds herself with dozens of them the day before each performance and spends hours trying them on. When she finds the perfect pair, she sews her ribbons on with dental floss. No one is allowed in the room, not even her beloved pooch Cali, a maltipoo (who likes to snooze on her pointe shoes in rehearsals). Woe to anyone who dares interrupt her. “Don’t talk to me until I pick my perfect shoes. I’m really nervous. Afterwards, I’m fine.”
Watching Peck move can be a sublime experience. She makes everything look unhurried and natural without losing her brio, speed, and excitement. The amplitude of her port de bras and her willowy torso make high-tech partnering look easy, partly because she is so in tune with her partner, and partly because of her extraordinary technique and amazing musicality. Onstage Peck seems to be lit from within. She dances with a free and sharing heart that draws the audience to her like a magnet. Hendl sums it up best, “I think everything she does she works for. But also, true artists are born with whatever that special thing is.”
Astrida Woods, a former ballet dancer, contributes to Dance Magazine and Playbill, and is working on a book called Dancers Are People Too.
From top: Peck in costume for Peter Martins' Naïve and Sentimental Music, costume by Liliana Casabal of Margane Le Fay. Photo by Matthew Karas; In Robbins' Four Seasons. Photo by Matthew Karas; Peck and Damian Woetzel in Wheeldon's Carousel. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB; In Martins' Romeo + Juliet with Sean Suozzi. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB; With Gonzalo Garcia in Robbins' Other Dances. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.