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.