“Ballet 422” documents the creation of New York City Ballet’s 422nd new ballet, Justin Peck’s “Paz de La Jolla”, from conception to premiere. Directed by Jody Lee Lipes, the film provides marvelous insights into the development of a new ballet, the personalities of the people involved, and the loneliness of a long distance choreographer – as well as the fact that, in context, it’s just another ballet. In short, it reveals both the monumentality, and the mundane, of the creative process.
Told from the point of view of the ballet’s choreographer, then still a member of NYCB’s corps but also, at that time, a novice choreographer, “Ballet 422” is not without flaws, but it’s an antidote to fictional, melodramatic, and colorful dance films, from “The Red Shoes” to “Black Swan,” that sanitize the process and romanticize secrets usually hidden behind the curtain. Most significantly, it provides the viewer with access to a process that, to an outsider, is mysterious or, worse, irrelevant. That it’s also entertaining is a bonus.
Mr. Lipes, who has directed episodes of the HBO series “Girls” and was co-director of the 2010 scripted adaptation of the Jerome Robbins ballet: “NY Export: Opus Jazz”, has stated that he has no particular love for ballet, and that “Ballet 422” is about Peck’s creative process. This is certainly evident in the film, which is raw and unembellished – and which presents Peck as its focal point (he’s in almost every scene – sometimes just listening or watching).
Ultimately, however, “Ballet 422” is as successful as it is not only because it reveals the creative process, but because it’s about the creation and presentation of a ballet. Notwithstanding the director’s predisposition, going behind the scenes to witness a ballet’s creation is different from going behind the scenes to watch the creation of an automobile or a casserole (though automobile designers and chefs may disagree). Although there’s no ‘artistic romance’ expressed or emphasized here, there’s an inherent romantic quality, including an obvious degree of physicality, to the performing arts in general and to dance in particular, that invites audience interest. And when the subject is ballet and the performing instrument is the human body, this ‘romantic’ quality increases exponentially, no matter how matter-of-fact the presentation may be. “Ballet 422” is an ideal film not only to see the creative process, but also to see dancers as people.
Previously presented at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, “Ballet 422” is a documentary in the ‘direct cinema’ or ‘observational cinema’ mode. That is, the camera purports to be a fly on the wall recording events as they happen. Presumably, nothing seen in the film is acted (or prompted by the camera) – at least nothing beyond whatever acting occurs in the course of ‘real life’. The cinematic interjections, in the form of typed screen comments, simply state that NYCB is one of the foremost ballet companies in the world, that Justin Peck, then a company soloist, was selected to choreograph its next ballet, and that he has two months to do it. After that, the superimposed comments are limited to countdowns-before-premiere and ‘translations’ of a few spoken sentences that lacked sufficient aural clarity. There’s no narrative voice-over; what’s on the screen speaks for itself.But the film and its creative team are not entirely neutral entities. There had to have been dozens of hours of footage that were cut to create the final product, and what is presented in the film has been edited to present the minutiae of the ballet’s creation in a particular way. And some scenes had to have been staged (or at least influenced by the camera’s presence): when Peck is alone in his apartment, or walking on a city street, he had to have known the camera was there, and possibly he was directed to take, or reconstruct, a particular action. The likelihood that the camera was an unobtrusive, unnoticed observer in other situations is suspect as well.
That being said, I don’t doubt that what appears on camera is an accurate depiction of the process, even if some of it may have been suggested by, or repeated in, the camera’s presence. What is somewhat disturbing, however, is that so much of the action that the film captures is unexplained; the viewer is required to deduce what’s happening – which may not be difficult for those already familiar with the process, but which might prove a maddeningly and unnecessarily cumbersome exercise for others. Similarly, none of the films ‘characters’ is identified; the viewer either knows who they are already, or must guess. Obviously, Mr. Lipes determined that it was the process that was important, and that an explanation of certain actions and the identity of certain ‘characters’ was unnecessary. While film’s scenes do effectively cut back and forth from the creation of steps, to the teaching of steps to various dancers, to interactions with and contributions from costume and lighting designers, to orchestra rehearsals, to Peck’s having to deal with being new to all this, this information gap is annoying.
The examples are many. We first see dancers in class, and in rehearsal for the performance of a ballet, actually Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces”, but in the film unnamed. To an uneducated viewer it may perhaps seem to be a peak at how Peck’s own ballet will look. We see dancers preening in dressing areas – including Peck spending what seems to be an inordinate amount of time getting his hair just right, which a viewer might see this as narcissism rather than performance necessity. After the film discloses that Peck has been selected to choreograph the company’s new ballet, we see him creating patterns on a note pad, as if he were diagramming a football play. The connection to creation of steps in the ballet is unexplained. In what to me is one of the most extraordinary sequences in the film, we see Peck, alone in his apartment, dancing steps and simultaneously recording his ‘performance’ via a tablet camera. That he’s recording his own choreography so he can see what his chorography looks like is unexplained.
We see Peck discussing his choreography with unidentified dancers who have difficulty with certain steps, with costumes, or with getting the steps into their bodies, all while seeing other dancers in the studio perimeters, resting, watching, or just looking bored. In one sequence, we see him rehearsing a pas de deux with two of the unidentified leads, while another pair of dancers shares the studio space, observing and occasionally mimicking. The presence of these unidentified other dancers is simply a fact; that they may be understudies for the leads is not indicated. And we never know why Peck does what he does (in terms of creating steps, for example), only that he does what he does. We know what’s on his mind, but we don’t know what’s in his head.
Nevertheless, seeing the nuts and bolts of how a ballet is put together, the ‘presentation’ process as much as the ‘creative’ process, is enlightening. And in this sense, “Ballet 422” is both entertaining and invaluable. And there are moments, staged or not, that are priceless. Seeing Peck’s tense veneer slowly yield to a broad smile when he sees everything come together is alone worth the price of admission.
In the end, the film’s calculated let-down – its omission of scenes from the ballet’s actual premiere, the reception from the audience, and any post-performance exhilaration, and instead its relegation of Peck’s ballet 422 as little more than ‘another ballet that the company performs every day’ – is disturbing but fair. Even though it looks staged, seeing Peck walk back to his dressing room to prepare for his performance in a subsequent ballet on the same program puts things in appropriate, if surprising, context. Just another day at the office.
And in the realm of unintended consequences: I did not particularly like Peck’s ballet, “Paz de La Jolla,” at its premiere on January 31, 2013. Perhaps next time I see a new ballet I’ll remember everything that went into creating “Ballet 422”, and be less dismissive.
A film by Jody Lipes
In selected theaters from February 6, 2015
See www.ballet422.com for details and trailer.