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.

Latest Posts


Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021