The Season of Justin Peck
At first glance, Justin Peck, with his full-rim glasses and modest demeanor, resembles Clark Kent. What he's accomplished choreographically, however, seems more like Superman. At 26, the New York City Ballet soloist has already created 20 ballets, and the buzz about his talent has people equating his potential with the likes of Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. Critics laud Peck's expert craftsmanship: the kaleidoscopic patterns, the layered musicality, the stylish linkage of steps and an almost freakishly uncommon ease in working with the corps de ballet.
“With Justin it wasn't difficult to see the raw gifts that he possessed right away," says NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins, who named Peck NYCB's resident choreographer this July. “It is my business to recognize talent when it emerges. What happens next is entirely up to him, but I am confident that it will be a very fruitful partnership."
What's next is Peck's biggest season yet: a September NYCB premiere to César Franck's Untitled piece (Solo de piano), for piano accompanied by string quintet, Op. 10; a November Pacific Northwest Ballet premiere; a February 2015 NYCB premiere to Aaron Copland's iconic Rodeo (Peck's plan is to “strip it of theatrical features and do more of a dance and music piece"); a March premiere for Miami City Ballet featuring set design by street artist Shepard Fairey; and a revival of In Creases for the Joffrey Ballet in April. Filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes' documentary Ballet 422, which focuses on Peck's creation of Paz de la Jolla, has been picked up by Magnolia Films for nationwide release. And Peck's choreography is even featured in a new app called Passe-Partout that allows anyone with an iPad to remix his steps and create a ballet on their tablet.
Peck's success is all the more startling in that he only began studying ballet 13 years ago. While employed as a supernumerary in American Ballet Theatre's production of Giselle in San Diego, Peck was blown away by the dancers' athleticism and discipline, and immediately enrolled in classes at the California Ballet. He transferred to the School of American Ballet at 15, then joined the NYCB corps four years later. “Being exposed to all these genius abstract works by Balanchine and Robbins and other choreographers working today, I got a taste for the range of what a ballet could be. I started to think about what it would be like if I tried to make my own dances."
He participated in five sessions at the New York Choreographic Institute, an affiliate of NYCB. Martins asked him to expand one of his works for the company—and the October 2012 premiere of Year of the Rabbit, set to music by Sufjan Stevens, started the rabbit run of Peck's sudden career sprint. “It sort of put me on the map as a choreographer," says Peck. “It interested other ballet companies and I started to get a lot of offers."
Lourdes Lopez, artistic director of Miami City Ballet, has since commissioned two ballets from Peck—2013's Chutes and Ladders and the upcoming premiere. “I find him incredibly inventive," she says. “He's not derivative, although you might see a little Balanchine or a hint of Ratmansky. It looks like something you've never seen before." She particularly lauds his gift of comfortably embracing pointe work, and the way that he grants both the principals and the corps their own brilliance.
Peck's never been drawn to separating out the ranks. “In Year of the Rabbit, I sort of tipped the scale in terms of the focus," he recalls. “I wanted to make the corps really stand out. It still had a lot of movement for the principals, but I was trying to challenge that hierarchy."
NYCB principal Sterling Hyltin says this structure even affects the dancers' approach: “We're all part of a large group—it almost feels like we're part of the cause. It's not about anyone, it's about the ballet."
Although one of Peck's greatest gifts lies in the ability to manipulate the morphing configurations of his dancers, Peck shrugs off the suggestion of an ingeniously mathematical mind. “For me it's easier to work with bigger groups," he says. “There is more possibility." While the energy of an ensemble of dancers feeds him, he admits that what's really challenging is to work with a few dancers, or, even worse, just one.
With every ballet, the process always begins with the music. While at SAB, Peck took piano lessons and learned to read scores. Today, he listens to a piece over and over as his starting point. “From there I start to come up with a structure for the ballet," he says. “Then I'll plot out all the counts and what I'm planning to do with the music at each point. Being prepared allows for a sense of spontaneity once the dancers are in the studio."
He's picky about the composers he'll collaborate with. He counts Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner among the few he trusts. “They're both classically trained, so they have an understanding of the classical genre and also have experience writing whatever you want to call it: rock, pop, folk or indie," says Peck. (They both also know how to craft a score that's danceable, a special skill.)
Lopez says that for someone so young, Peck shows a mature command in the studio. “He has the ability to walk in and engender a certain kind of respect from the dancers," she says. “He's very confident in his skin—very authoritative, calm, doesn't get flustered. It's a very cerebral process."
Continuing to dance with an ever-mounting choreographer's schedule has proven tricky. Peck, promoted to soloist in 2013, is honest about the challenges, especially transitioning from creator to interpreter. “After premiering Everywhere We Go and then returning to performing almost every evening, I remembered how painful dancing is physically," he says. But he also appreciates the way his creativity benefits from dancing alongside his colleagues and knowing them personally. He has sensibly turned down some offers to choreograph: “I'm trying to maintain a sense of balance and pace myself. It's hard to say no, though."
In addition to champions like Lopez and helpful advisors such as Ratmansky, Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied, Peck cites Peter Martins for his invaluable support. “He's someone I can confide in and speak to not just about the work but the whole process of choreographing in an institution," he says.
And if NYCB's resident choreographer could speak with its founding choreographer, Mr. Balanchine, what would he say? “I would have a conversation on music, and how it relates to dance," Peck says without hesitation. “And talk to him about specific works. I would just be in heaven speaking with him."
Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.
Two photos, from top: Ashley Bouder and NYCB in Peck's Year of the Rabbit, by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB; Dance Project in Peck's Murder Ballads, Courtesy LADP.
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.