Justin Peck on His Tony Win—and What Really Fuels the Broadway Community
Could Justin Peck be any busier? In the midst of pulling triple duty at New York City Ballet—as a soloist, resident choreographer and a member of its interim artistic team—he also managed to choreograph a Broadway show. Then, last month, on his first try, he won a Tony Award for best choreography for the revival of Carousel.
The morning after the ceremony, he shared an exuberant Instagram post: As he exited the stage after winning, he ran into the Carousel sailors backstage as they were entering to perform "Blow High, Blow Low" for the telecast. He wrote: "None of them knew we had just been awarded the Tony, and I stood in front of them holding the award, speechless. They erupted in excitement and we exchanged a beautiful moment of embraces, cheers, and happiness. Certainly the highlight of the night for me!" Recently, via email, we caught up with the peripatetic Mr. Peck.
In your wildest dreams did you ever imagine you'd win a Tony on your first try?
No way! I had dreamt of it for a long, long time, though. I always watch the award ceremony on TV each year. And I love to see how the theater community celebrates their collective annual achievements. The inclusive and festive nature of the Tonys is something I always admired. So it was surreal to get to partake in that.
Do you think it will be possible to continue dancing and choreographing at NYCB and working on Broadway?
I love theater and dance, and I'm certainly lucky to get to partake in both communities. So I'm hoping to find a way to sustain further interaction within the two worlds. There are lessons learned from both genres, and I think the crossover allows for me to grow as a contributing artist towards each respective artistic world.
What did you take away from your Carousel experience that will enable you to hit the ground running on your next Broadway project?
Carousel was the perfect basis to learn how a Broadway show is built. I was able to absorb so much, especially from working on a classic golden-age musical.
Peck reinvented Carousel's choreography for its Broadway revival. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy DKC/O&M
For example, how to work with creative collaborators, what sort of endurance is required for the rehearsal/tech/preview periods, the prioritization of storytelling within the theatrical experience, the importance of being a constructive/encouraging/supportive company leader, how to fix or improve a dance number by reading the audience's reactions, how Schmackary's cookies fuel the entire Broadway community. I could go on for quite a while about the lessons I've learned.
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In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.