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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.

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AinslieWear Limoncello Wrap Skirt

via AinslieWear

If you can't spend your summer in the Mediterranean under actual lemon trees, this skirt is a solid backup. Plus, it gives us serious Beyonce "Lemonade" vibes, which will help you feel more fierce and less sweaty-mess in class (hopefully).
ainsliewear.com, $50

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Do you have a sprained ankle that won't heal? It's not that rare. Studies have shown that 10 to 30 percent of sprains will have symptoms later. So what is a sprained ankle anyway? It's the most common injury in all of sports and dancing.


Dancing pushes your body to its limit. If you roll over on your ankle when landing from a jump, you can sprain or injure the ligaments on the outer (lateral) side that hold the joint together. This is different from a "strain," which affects your tendons and muscles. An easy way to remember this distinction is this: You sprain your ankle, but you strain your Achilles tendon. The degree of injury varies, depending on the damage to the ligaments. We determine this by a physical exam and X-rays that help us classify the ankle sprain as Grade I (mild), II (moderate), or III (severe). The most serious sprain involves a complete tear of the ligaments with marked instability that often requires surgery. Fortunately, most sprains are Grade I or II and heal in three to six weeks. The exceptions are those that continue to cause trouble. This is the "sprained ankle that won't heal."

In medical circles, residual problems from sprained ankles cause considerable angst, because they can be hard to diagnose and difficult to treat-especially when telltale signs are ignored by stoic dancers. Problems with old sprains tend to fall into three categories: swelling, pain, and instability ("giving way").


Swelling

It's normal for a sprained ankle to swell, sometimes for four to six weeks, or longer. But swelling that persists for more than three months may be a sign of trouble. The lining of the capsule surrounding a joint is called the synovium, and anything inside the joint that irritates the synovium will cause it to secrete fluid. Swelling inside of a joint is often a sign that something is causing irritation. (The swelling that is seen from the outside is a combination of soft tissue swelling around the joint and fluid within the joint itself.) In the ankle there are several reasons for this condition. While these may seem alarming, treatment is possible. But first, let's take a look at the culprits.


Chronic synovitis Sometimes there is damage to the surface of the joint that does not show up on any tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, even though it continues to cause irritation and excess fluid.


A bone chip At the time of injury, a bone chip may have been knocked loose, leaving a "loose body" floating around inside to cause trouble.


An OCD lesion "OCD" in sports medicine stands for osteochondritis dissecans (not obsessive compulsive disorder). The easiest way to think of this is like a cavity in a tooth. It is something that leaves a small hole in the surface on the ankle bone (the talus) with a dead piece of bone in it. An MRI study will usually pick this up.


A bone bruise This is not black and blue. Instead, it feels like an achy pain that is difficult to explain and lasts for months. There is edema, or fluid, within the bones themselves that we can only see on an MRI study. Fortunately, it is rarely serious and gradually fades away.


What can you do? Treatment for chronic swelling, no matter what the cause, usually requires sleeping with the leg elevated on a pillow at night and putting on an elastic ankle support in the morning when you get out of bed. If the swelling is minimal and is slowly going away with no other symptoms, it is OK to dance, but go easy on the jumps and grand plies till all the swelling is gone. However, if it doesn't feel so good then don't do it! An ankle support (no need for metal hinges, etc.) usually feels good at this stage.


It also helps to avoid the saltshaker, which leads to water retention. With diligence, the swelling should go away. However, if the leg is swollen up the shin, something else may be happening, and it needs to be checked out by your doctor. Swelling that does not go away is a sign that something more is wrong. Normal joints do not swell.


Pain

There are several common causes of ankle pain that does not go away:


The sinus tarsi syndrome Lingering inflammation, scar tissue, or a partly torn ligament can occur in the hollow place in the side of the anklebone called the sinus tarsi (sinus in Latin means hollow or sunken and the tarsus is the ankle). This is the most common cause of the sprained ankle that won't heal. While it can be difficult to discern this problem on an X-ray or MRI, a physical exam by a dance medicine specialist can pinpoint the diagnosis by locating the exact area that hurts.


A tarsal coalition Residual pain in the sinus tarsi after the original sprain heals can also be due to an unrecognized tarsal coalition. The ankle has two components: the regular ankle joint that moves up and down, and the subtalar (ST) joint beneath it that moves in and out. Together, they make up the ankle joint complex. Some people are born with limited motion in their ST joint because the bones in this area are joined together where they ought to be separate—a coalition. It can usually be seen on an X-ray or MRI. This condition is present in about five percent of ankles. It usually occurs in one ankle only, rather than both. As with a sprain, it can be mild, moderate, or severe. In dancers, it is usually mild or it would have caused trouble before the sprain. Dancers with mild symptoms can often work around it.


The high ankle sprain This is marked by tenderness in the front of the ankle on the outside. Unlike routine ankle sprains where the main damaged ligaments lie right in the sinus tarsi, this one affects a ligament that is higher up, at the level of the ankle joint itself. This is the so-called "high" ankle sprain, which can be a real bugaboo because it takes two to three times longer to heal than a routine sprain. It may not show up on medical tests, so the diagnosis is usually made on the basis of the physical exam.


Secondary problems Lastly, there are several conditions, such as FHL tendonitis ("dancer's tendonitis") and the os trigonum syndrome that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Dancers often think that the residual pain is part of the healing process when it is actually a separate problem. Later the sprain may heal, but these conditions can continue to be painful and may even require surgery if left unaddressed.


Instability

"My ankle gives way" is probably the second most common leftover problem with ankle sprains after the sinus tarsi syndrome. We doctors see it all the time. Many things can cause this problem. Fortunately most respond to appropriate treatment.


Peroneal weakness There are two peroneal tendons that run parallel down the outside of the ankle; one is short and the other is long. Their major function is to keep the ankle from rolling over and prevent sprains. After an injury they can remain weak, so the ankle is poorly protected from further roll-overs. It's easy at this point to fall into the vicious cycle of "Because it's weak it rolls over and because it rolls over it's weak," which can go on for months. If this is the problem, it is easy to fix. Simply restore the normal peroneal strength with physical therapy. A few months of daily use of a theraband, under the guidance of a physical therapist, will usually strengthen the peroneals. (They gain strength faster if the exercises are done in the full "tendu" position.)

Laxity of the ankle ligaments Grade I sprains do not usually damage the ankle ligaments to any extent, but repeated Grade II or Grade Ill injuries can lead to permanent looseness of the ligaments that hold the anklebones together. This is a difficult situation, because they can be tightened only by surgery. The surgery is quite effective, but the recovery is usually three months or more. So it is nice to avoid it if you can.


Many loose ankles often give way because of a combination of looseness and weakness. These can often be brought up to full strength with physical therapy and then they don't give way anymore. The number one indication for ankle ligament surgery is the failure of rehab to correct the problem.


Pain, swelling and instability

The problems associated with a recurring sprained ankle can co-exist and produce all three symptoms. In this ease the diagnosis is particularly difficult. There is one last problem that might be going on:


Peroneal tendon damage With repeated sprains, the peroneal tendons can develop small longitudinal rents or tears. When this happens, the tendons swell up in the sheathes that surround them and cause achy pains, chronic swelling and weakness that cannot be corrected by exercise. This problem is easy to miss and hard to correct because it usually gets worse in spite of all treatment. Fortunately, this condition also responds well to surgery.

The best way to diagnose these various problems is to see a sports or dance medicine specialist for a history, physical exam, and appropriate studies. Your doctor may request X-rays followed by an MRI, CT and/or bone scan. Physical therapy is usually the first step in the recovery. Do not try to treat yourself! There is an old expression in medicine that says, "Someone who treats themselves has a fool for a physician." Merde!


William G. Hamilton, M.D. is the orthopedic consultant for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The School of American Ballet and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Ballet School.

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