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New Film Follows the Making of a Ballet

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Perennial Properties
Rehearsal scene from Ballet 422.
Rehearsal scene from Ballet 422.

Ballet 422 is filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes’s documentary examining the two-month process of young New York City Ballet dancer and choreographer Justin Peck as he creates a new ballet, the company’s 422nd. Premiering in Atlanta on March 13 at Midtown Art Cinemas, the film samples scenes from the various steps of creation, from inception to performance, giving us a core sample of the artistic process and also providing a behind-the-scenes look at the country’s most renowned ballet company. Rehearsal scenes are collegial, at times even giddy and fun, but overall the film captures the quiet intensity, the relentless and months-long pressure and tricky negotiations of a new creation and a many-personed collaboration.

For the most part, the film sticks to a cinema vérité directness and simplicity (I found the lengthy and plodding narrative title cards at the opening not in keeping with that style, however: the film would have been stronger without them). Still, the film takes a fly on the wall’s view of the rehearsal process, letting us piece together the picture of how a new ballet comes together. There is no editorialization, no talking-head interviews or voice-over narration. Ballet 422 will actually be of interest to viewers who know least about ballet: it captures a curious glimpse the inside workings of a large, self-contained, largely invisible world of dance creation.

Lipes typically makes films about artists at work (Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same, NY Export: Opus Jazz), and Peck makes for an especially interesting subject for him: young, handsome, and with an expressive face that here is mostly expressing anxiety. The film is engrossing, but it’s odd how few memorable or extreme details there are: it’s a film that keeps the emotional temperature on a very low simmer. The only thing that resembles conflict or antagonism is a moment when Peck asks to address the orchestra.

Justin Peck and Tiler Peck in BALLET 422, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Justin Peck and Tiler Peck in Ballet 422.

We don’t see enough of Peck’s non-working life, which is both a strength and a weakness of the film: the focus remains firmly on the work, but the film ends up proferring a tired stereotype of dancers/artists as single-minded, work-obsessed cyphers. Fortunately, the film doesn’t deal in mystical or romantic archetypes: there’s a parallel matter-of-fact approach in both the filmmaker’s and the choreographer’s process. The film’s plain-as-day honesty and clarity are what ultimately make it so absorbing. Interactions between Peck and his collaborators are placed under the microscope, but what we’re supposed to make of them is left intriguingly open-ended.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

Lipes is at his best when capturing epics in miniature: best of all is the creation of costumes, which we follow from inception, through dyeing, cutting, fitting and so on. It’s strange how little of the finished ballet piece we see, however, and what is there is oddly edited: we see dance paired with sections of music synched differently than they would be seen in performance. Most viewers, I think, will leave wanting a better sense of the finished product—what were we watching all this for? how did it come out?—but nonethless they’ll be moved by the film’s ending in which Peck, having taken his bows, returns to duty as a member of the corps de ballet in another piece in the same night’s mixed program, suggesting a sort of workaday duty that caps the artists’ devotion to the creation of a short-lived performative moment.

Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based critic who covers visual art, dance, and theater. 

Screenings of Ballet 422 are taking place in the South at:

Opening March 13
Atlanta, GA: Midtown Art Cinemas 8
Winston-Salem, NC: Aperture Cinema

Opening March 14
Bradenton, FL: Lakewood Ranch 6

Opening March 20
Charlotte, NC: Manor Theatre 2
Greensboro, NC: Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema
Knoxville, TN: Downtown West Cinema 8
Shreveport, LA: Robinson Film Center 2

Opening March 23
Louisville, KY: Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts

Opening March 27
Lake Park, FL: Mos’ Art Theatre
Tallahassee, FL: Tallahassee Film Society / All Saints Cinema

Opening April 4 
Baton Rouge, LA: Manship Theatre

Opening April 10
Jacksonville, FL: Sun-Ray Cinema

Opening May 14
Memphis, TN: Memphis Brooks Museum of Art