Ballet 422 DVDDavid Mead

Jody Lee Lipes’ observational documentary Ballet 422 follows New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck as he creates the company’s 422nd ballet, Paz de la Jolla. When it played in movie theaters, there was some criticism that, unless you had some pretty detailed ballet knowledge, it was impossible to identify characters, and there was no explanation of background or what was happening.

The good news is that the DVD, now available, remedies those issues. Among the special features is the option to play the movie with a commentary by Lipes and Peck. What you get is not a voiceover in the usual sense, but more of a conversation between two friends who chat about what is happening on screen, and yes, identifying everyone and their roles as they do so.

But don’t switch the commentary on immediately. The ‘no hand-holding’, no leading through version of the film that reminds one greatly of Fred Wiseman movies such as La Danse (2009) and his earlier profile of American Ballet Theatre (1995), is definitely worth watching, because as much as Lipes and Peck’s comments add, they also detract. Somehow they take the attention away from the detail of what is actually happening. For example, when Peck is struggling in the studio, watch the dancers. The lack of narration has a plus in that it really makes you observe closely; and the unsaid, the body language, is often as important as the said. My advice? Watch it first minus the commentary, then again with.

Other special features not available in theaters include the three lead principals, Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, and Peck and Lipes talking about the film. There are a lot of extra insights here. It’s here that you’ll get some idea of Peck’s background. It’s here that you’ll hear some explanation of his creative process, and it’s here that you’ll hear him speak of how he got his first NYCB commission and the story behind this one. And it’s all interesting stuff.

Ballet 422 does not present the creative process from start to finish. Rather it drops in here and there, giving glimpses into the making of the ballet rather than revealing the end to end process. Having said that, Lipes does capture well the level of detail that everyone involved in the making of a new ballet has to deal with. It very quickly becomes clear that it’s a process full of uncertainty; a process that is a constant round of questions asking and problem solving. There is a lot of standing and thinking, and talking things through, as everything slowly gets worked out.

Choreographer Justin Peck in rehearsal with New York City Ballet principal dancers Sterling Hytlin, Tiler Peck, and Amar Ramasar. From the documentary 'Ballet 422'. Photo © Jody Lee Lipes, Courtesy of Ballet 422/New York City Ballet

From the documentary Ballet 422
Choreographer Justin Peck in rehearsal with New York City Ballet
principal dancers Sterling Hytlin, Tiler Peck, and Amar Ramasar.
Photo Jody Lee Lipes, Courtesy of Ballet 422/New York City Ballet

What is a surprise is the total lack of tension, even on opening night. And there’s no sense of frustration when things don’t work out either. There are times when it feels like a public relations film; all is always calm, everything always ran smoothly, and everything to time. Perhaps it did, but it would be a first.

In fact, one learns as much about Peck as one does about the making of the ballet. That he has talent as a choreographer is clear, but his inexperience and uncertainty when dealing with people shines through, albeit in quite an endearing way. “I dunno,” “I’m not sure” and the like are heard again and again in response to questions. He often seems overawed; understandable given that most of his dancers and all the designers and technicians have far more experience than he does. The sense is not so much that he doesn’t know what to say, but more that he doesn’t quite know how to say it. In one scene with designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung finishes up saying nothing.

His communications skills are at their nadir in a speech he gives to the orchestra, which he had to be prompted to do in the first place. The idea was to thank them for their work, but it turns into something horribly formal, probably as a result said without much feeling, and rather
cringe-making. It seems as if he knows it and can’t wait to escape.

What also comes through strongly is the important role played by former NYCB Principal Albert Evans is an invaluable assistant; “my right hand man in the studio” as Peck puts it in the commentary; the voice of experience and that all-important second pair of eyes. You also get the feeling that he is guiding Peck. He is seen prompting and offering advice, picking up of little points of choreographic detail, but also looking after the dancers’ welfare. At one point he has to remind Peck they need a five-minute break.

There are minor annoyances in the film, the worst being that it’s nigh on impossible to hear some of the quieter, whispered conversations (worst of all are the ones where you can only hear one side), and none of which are subtitled. But again, that would probably take away from the beauty of the film and the mood it portrays. And it is beautifully shot.

Ballet 422 is definitely a worthwhile addition to any ballet lovers DVD collection. Just remember that it’s a work of art in its own right, not an unbiased documentary record, and certainly not a cinematic encyclopaedia entry. Indeed, it would suffer if it was.

Ballet 422
US release date: May 26, 2015
Not yet released in the UK but available via some importers