A dance documentary that takes the cake

Ballet 422’ by Jody Lee Lipes

2 minute read
Peck watching dancers rehearse. (© 2014 - Magnolia Pictures)
Peck watching dancers rehearse. (© 2014 - Magnolia Pictures)

I can’t dance. I don’t know the names of the positions that dancers contort their muscles to create. But ballet is beautiful moving art, and I love it.

That’s why I enthusiastically watched the documentary Ballet 422, which follows 25-year-old phenom Justin Peck as he created New York City Ballet’s 422nd ballet. (Peck was promoted from the corps de ballet to soloist in 2013 and named the company’s resident choreographer in 2014.) He had only two months to make his new work, Paz de la Jolla, featuring principal dancers Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck, and Amar Ramasar.

The film follows him as he works with the dancers, sometimes solo, sometimes in duets or groups. It shows him collaborating with lighting and costume designers (I would love to see a film about just the costume design — every outfit is made by hand in the company’s costume shop). Everything in the production seems to come together with ease — did it, or was that the result of editing? Is it really possible there wasn’t one disagreement or moment of frustration? The lack of such scenes made the film feel a bit like marketing rather than storytelling.

Step by step

But it was fascinating. Watching the steps Peck worked on alone, on the floor as well as scribbled in his notebook, come to life through the limbs and movements of the dancers in rehearsal was breathtaking. His creativity enticed me, made me want more than just the brief snippets the audience could see as portions of his work were practiced again and again.

It made the ending disappointing. Imagine watching someone make a cake: She gathers the ingredients, cracks eggs on the side of the bowl and drops them in. She adds butter and flour and sugar and whatever else is needed — a pinch of this, a dash of that. She stirs gently to get everything combined, then blends with a mixer to make the various distinguishable parts into a cohesive whole. The cake is baked and cooled. It’s iced and decorated, prepared for final presentation to an eager audience.

The cook presents it on a plate as if to say, “Here it is. Isn’t it pretty?” and then she takes it away.

The ending of the documentary features brief glimpses of the completed Ballet 422. But why not show the entire work?

I love documentaries. I love seeing behind the scenes and learning how art is created — but I also like seeing the created art, the finished product, how the pieces all come together. After more than an hour of watching these cooks in their beautiful kitchen, it would have been nice to actually taste their creation.

What, When, Where

Ballet 422. Jodi Lee Lipes directed. ballet422.com

Available on DVD and Blu-ray and via streaming and download (Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and Netflix).

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