Dear Ballet 422,
The joy of watching ballet derives itself from the act of watching the human form perform in a way that seems almost impossible and yet wholly effortless. Dancers use their bodies to draw out and accentuate the marvel of the music, honoring the score while at the same time using it to elevate themselves above the audience through their mastery of their abilities. They are the channel through which the soul of the music is draw and given form. Their movements seem to come organically from the notes themselves, and their bodies move in ways that an outsider could never believe or achieve, alchemically twisted and spun as though by no earthly means.
The art and form of a ballet is not simply born from the music, but from the interpretation of the music and its translation into movement via choreography. It is not magic that gives a ballerina their steps, but a choreographer, and the process isn’t divination, it is methodical planning and composition. To the unpracticed observer the distinction is barely existent, and yet somehow, Ballet 422, you make the process not only observable, but eminently watchable.
The circumstances of the composition and choreographing of the 422nd original ballet for the New York Ballet Company makes this process all the more engrossing to witness. Justin Peck is a member of the corps de ballet, the 50 non-soloist dancers who make up the body of the ballet. All the same, thanks to his performance at an internal choreography institute, he is chosen to act as choreographer for the only new ballet to be made that year. Peck must guide his dancers, both the soloists and the corps, in moves wholly of his creation while at the same time working with the wardrobe department, the orchestra, and the lighting and staging technicians. Comprehend that for a moment, and then let me know if you think two months would be enough time to complete the task, for that is all Peck has to work with.
The documentary form allows for all kinds of narrative shortcuts – from title cards to identifying chyrons and on to talking head interviews to give context and baldly state themes and ideas. Boldly and beautifully, however, you stay away from these tricks. In your soul you almost function as a silent film, so much of your time is spent observing the contemplation and interiority of the creative process, devoid of dialogue. Even those scenes in which Peck directly addresses his dancers or the costuming staff, the sound could be brought down and one could still understand the sheer enormity of the process. Seeing Peck worry over each step, recording first himself and then positioning and repositioning his dancers is a progression of will and realization. It is nearly impossible to take your eyes off of the screen the whole time, for fear of missing one of those small moments in which the simple act of dance transcends itself to become a sterling realization of the act of creation.
The progress of the ballet from nascent idea to fully-formed production is miraculous in its actualization. Even more impressive is the way in which director Jody Lee Lipes manages to catch this two month period. Majestic in its simplicity, and committed in its desire not to draw attention to itself, his camera finds captivating and charming ways to catch the action, and the lack of a non-diegetic score adds both to the realism and the focus. You are a beautiful documentary, and one in which the images act as an appealing window to the subject.
Watching Peck work with his dancers and the other members of the production, undiluted by cinematic tricks and yet with all of them kept at a remove due to their lack of acknowledgement of the camera, it is surprising how much an audience gets to know and admire these people. Thus is it all the more shocking to realize that while the dancers are bringing his work to life on the stage, Peck is sitting anonymous in the audience, now powerless as his ballet comes to life. At the basic level, either in the corps de ballet or in the role of choreographer, Peck is invisible. Yet his work, in both forms, is indelible, moving, and incapable of being ignored.
This is the great and fantastic irony of being a certain kind of creator – holding the responsibility of ushering the new and the impossible into being, and yet completely invisible to the world at large. But what level of recognition could ever hope to equal the sheer rush of joy and accomplishment one must get from seeing the ideas in their head brought to life? We live in a world where fame is its own reward, but you, Ballet 422, show that the joy of creation will always be the more valuable treasure.