Peck in Process: The Choreographer on His Latest Work for NYCB.
By Terry Trucco
A lot can happen in a year and a half. Just ask New York City Ballet dancer and choreographer Justin Peck.
In October 2012, Year of the Rabbit, set music by Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, introduced Peck’s choreography to NYCB’s New York audiences and garnered high praise for its freshness, originality, and inventive use of ballet vocabulary. Since then three ballets choreographed by Peck for NYCB have danced across the Company’s stage, including In Creases, Paz de la Jolla, and Capricious Maneuvers. In addition the dancer, who hails from San Diego, was promoted to Soloist last year. Which brings us to May 8, when Peck’s latest ballet makes its debut at the NYCB Spring Gala with a commissioned score by Stevens, sets by Brooklyn sculptor and architect Karl Jensen, and costumes by former NYCB Principal Dancer Janie Taylor. On a chilly spring day Peck took a break from the studio to talk about his new ballet and how his working process has evolved since he began creating dances for the Company.
You’ve said your work starts with the music, and this time you have a commissioned piece written by Sufjan Stevens for a full orchestra.
Commissions are always risky, but I don’t trust anyone more than I trust Sufjan. We started with what we wanted to do conceptually. We wanted to keep the format of the ballet abstract, keep the focus on the music and dance and the relationship between the two, and structure the piece in short movements.
You wound up with nine movements.
I think of the structure as being analogous to going to a restaurant and experiencing a tasting menu with nine courses. Each course has to be able to stand on its own, but at the same time there is a natural progression. It’s the same with this ballet. There’s a well-thought out progression, but there’s a lot of individual music and choreographic ideas within each movement.
For Year of the Rabbit, you worked with Stevens to tailor an existing piece of music for the ballet. How did your collaboration work this time?
Sufjan would send me short excerpts of passages he had written, and I would either respond to those ideas or not. I would say, Let’s try to develop this further or let’s see where this one goes. The ideas began to accumulate, and it became a matter of laying out a structure for a ballet. We worked on it for over a year but didn’t dive into it until last summer.
Did he have any input in the choreography?
There’s one piano movement that’s very fast that he wrote with Principal Dancers Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar in mind. He requested I use them, and since he wrote it for them, I couldn’t say no. He knows all the dancers, comes to see them perform, and has his own opinions about choreography.
This is your largest ballet to date with 25 dancers and 40 minutes of music. What determined that?
I formulate my ideas based on the structure and melodies of the music and certain emotions captured in it. And this is such a full piece of music. When I realized the scale of it I started thinking about having a large cast.
You seem to enjoy working with big groups of dancers.
There are more possibilities. If you’re playing with Legos, you can build something more substantial if you have 100 pieces instead of 3.
Did the commissioned score enhance your creative freedom?
It was nice because certain details could be tweaked. In the first movement I needed eight more bars at the very end to do what I wanted to do with the choreography. I was able to go to Sufjan, and he was able to do it. With a set piece of music, it is what it is.
This is also the first time a ballet of yours has a backdrop. Why did you decide to commission one?
If you look at the theater, all the dancing takes place at the ground level, and you have this vertical space that’s vacant. I wanted to fill that with something but also maintain respect for dancers’ space. Sufjan suggested we bring in Karl Jensen, who is part of a community of Brooklyn artists. He designed two backdrops with cutouts that move in relation to each other to create different looks.
You sometimes design costumes for your ballets, but this time you tapped Janie Taylor for the task.
Janie’s been designing her own practice wear, and a lot of the dancers love what she’s made. It’s a really simple look but very original, and it inspired me. She was a prominent presence in the making of Year of the Rabbit. And since she retired this past season and can’t dance in the piece, I wanted to keep up our collaboration.
Do you still try out your choreographic ideas on yourself before you meet with the dancers?
That hasn’t changed. I film myself moving and come up with choreographic themes. I have an archive on my iPhone with separate folders for each movement of this ballet.
Having an iPhone full of ideas must make it easier when you enter a studio filled with dancers.
It’s hard to go into a room with 25 people and not have anything thought out. There has to be some sort of base plan. Otherwise, it’s like building a house without a blueprint.
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