Forest for the trees: Looking at a new dance film

A rehearsal moment from Ballet 422. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A rehearsal moment from Ballet 422. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Creativity is a mystery. As if trying to discover where a work of art comes from, the dance documentary Ballet 422 (first shown at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, now in limited release) looks into countless details—from the sewing of a single pointe shoe to shots of more than a dozen dancers working in a studio—but leaves us with something of an enigma.

In 2012, Justin Peck, an emerging choreographer who was also a corps dancer with New York City Ballet (he has since been promoted to soloist), was commissioned to create a work for the company’s Winter 2013 season. In Ballet 422 (so called because the piece will become NYCB’s 422nd new dance), filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes chronicles the process of its making, in a sequence of abbreviated moments. Peck himself is almost ubiquitous in this. We see Peck alone in a studio, developing steps to the music while recording himself with a smartphone; Peck and an assistant in numerous studio sessions, working with his leading dancers; Peck talking over possibilities for the women’s shoes with a costume person; Peck in various chats with his rehearsal pianist; Peck and the lighting director working out cues in the theater; Peck at home reviewing rehearsal video; and, now and then, Peck upholding his other job, that of rehearsing and performing existing dances for the company. But we see other contributors as well: the lighting man calling out instructions to an unseen crew member; a shot of the orchestra conductor running the players through a section of music (which I’m pretty sure was a Tchaikovsky piece that’s unrelated to anything else in the film); glimpses of fabric being dyed and cut for costumes, and various momentary discussions of their fit and effect; and dancers caught in a variety of moments.

All along, we’re wondering what music Peck has chosen for his new work. An early title card tells us only that it was composed in 1935. We hear frequent snatches of something with a Western American flavor. Is it by Ferde Grofé? An overheard call on the backstage PA eventually lets us know that Peck has titled his dance Paz de la Jolla, but we don’t learn until the end credits that the score he’s relying on is “Sinfonietta la Jolla,” by Bohuslav Martinů. (Incidentally, unless my companion and I both misread it, the title card is incorrect; Boosey & Hawkes, the score’s publisher, indicates that the music was written and first performed in 1950, after Martinů had emigrated to America, not in the 30s, when he still lived in Europe.)

Like the music, the many other people who play a role in the ballet’s making are revealed only in snippets. Director Lipes, employing a pretty rigorous cinéma-vérité approach, does no interviews and uses no off-camera voiceover, nor (apart from a few superimposed titles such as “Two Weeks Before Premiere”) does he use any on-screen labels. Thus no one is clearly identified but Peck himself. You’ll grasp that the rehearsal pianist is named Cameron and that the ballet’s three leading dancers are Amar, Sterling, and Tiler. You’ll see Amar’s sturdy opening-night confidence, a certain quicksilver quality in Sterling’s dancing, Cameron’s desire to help Peck stay on good terms with the orchestra, and so forth. But the design and support people, as well as any broad sense of what they’re doing, are apt to remain rather mysterious even if you know the company. We’re forbidden to hear any big-picture conversation or to see so much as a page of costume sketches.

Most important, where’s the new ballet in all of this? How long is it? How many movements? Is there an overall idea or feel? The rehearsal scenes are all about working through short bits, and the few moments that we see of the opening-night performance are only a little more substantial. Peck’s creation seems to be acquiring substance before our eyes, yet our view is always being cut short. Paz de la Jolla looks beachy and sounds (as an AllMusic page says of the music) “bright and breezy.” What a pity that we don’t see much of it.

Ballet 422 takes you somewhere you can’t otherwise go; it puts you in the presence of people who work wonders, some with lights, some with cloth and fasteners, many with their own bodies. There’s an undeniable fascination to this, whether or not you’ve ever done such work yourself, and witnessing it is worth a lot. On the other hand, Lipes’s approach casts the viewer as an unprivileged and nearly ignorant observer in the midst of people who all know what’s going on and what they’re about. This is the oddity of the cinéma-vérité approach, which assumes that you can see and hear without being present and involved; whatever else one thinks about the style, watching this film is decidedly not what it feels like to make a piece of theater or dance. Because Ballet 422 is ruthlessly process-oriented, it piles up countless tantalizing but fragmentary impressions, as if to say, There is no magic, only 10,000 bits of work.

It would be unfair to compare Ballet 422 with something like Matthew Diamond’s Dancemaker, which is a full-fledged portrait of choreographer Paul Taylor. That film has different aims from this one, observes different aesthetic principles, and undoubtedly had greater financial backing as well. It’s not unfair to point out, though, that the end of Diamond’s film conveys, through concise editing, a vivid and visceral feel for an entire new dance as it appears onstage—Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera—whereas Lipes’s film will leave you wishing you could see Paz de la Jolla in person, because you don’t get a very coherent view of it here.

Ballet 422 takes its strangest steps at the end. Reminding us that Peck the creator is also Peck the dancer, it concludes by showing us that, after the premiere performance of Paz de la Jolla, he retreats backstage, gets into costume and makeup, and then takes the stage in Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH. This is another way in which dances are made—by performers creating them anew on a stage. But why should a film about a Justin Peck ballet end with one by Ratmansky? And why is the music wrong? Unless my friend and I were much mistaken, what we’re hearing as we glimpse Ratmansky’s ballet and then cut away for the end credits isn’t the Shostakovich concerto that Ratmansky uses but Bizet’s Symphony in C—which happens to be the music for a very well-known work by George Balanchine. The effect is momentarily jarring, as it always is when you hear music that doesn’t belong with the dance you’re seeing. It’s also surprising, because it amounts to editorializing, which the film otherwise avoids. With these subtle nods to two acknowledged masters of ballet choreography, Lipes places Peck in their company. He may be right—time will tell.


4 thoughts on “Forest for the trees: Looking at a new dance film

  1. John, your observations and confusions are on the mark–it’s a very insider film. I might also add, in favor of it, that the backstage and rehearsal scenes are fascinating.


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