Ballet 422 Dance As A Creative Process

Ballet 3422 posterOne of the reasons I love my Netflix subscription is that I find documentaries to watch that I never would have seen otherwise. “Ballet 422” is my most recent journey. Here’s the description from the Internet Database of Movies: From first rehearsal to world premiere, Ballet 422 takes us backstage at New York City Ballet as emerging choreographer Justin Peck crafts a new work. The dance is entitled “Paz de la Jolla,” based on “Sinfonietta La Jolla” by Bohuslav Martinu, and will be the 422nd new ballet created for the company.

I had four reasons for wanting to watch this:

I enjoy ballet, as an uninformed observer of beautiful dancing.

I love behind the scenes stories.

DancerOfTheNile_1600x2400I wrote a novel entitled Dancer of the Nile and while I was researching it several years ago, I tried to get into the headspace of a dancer. I’m going to write the sequel this year and I thought the movie might help me ‘get it right.’ Granted, my character Nima isn’t dancing anything remotely similar to ballet in 1850 BCE ancient Egypt, but I have a feeling at its soul dancing is a timeless activity, and a dancer from any era and genre could understand another dancer.

I could no more create a dance than I could write a song and I was fascinated by the idea of watching a ballet come into existence. The creative process required fascinated me. People are always asking me how I go about writing my novels and here I was, wondering the same thing about a dance.

I’m not a dancer. I’d love to be but I have the form of dyslexia where I don’t know left from right. I also can’t remember sequences of steps. Hence my utter failure to achieve glory on the high school drill team! I also can’t read music – that discovery in 6th grade was the first time I’d totally failed at anything scholastic. Musical notes might as well be hieroglyphics to me, although I could probably learn the latter long before I’d ever understand music. The three things I learned to play on the piano I had to learn in terms of which keys to press next. I LOVE music. I’m always singing or humming my favorite songs. But the creative process of music isn’t a gift I was given.

005So as the documentary begins, dancer Justin Peck, then 25 and a member of the corps de ballet at the NYC Ballet, has been chosen to create a dance for three principal dancers. This will be his third new dance. He’s already chosen the music when we meet him so there he stands, alone in the practice room in front of the mirrors, pondering, moving only a little bit, trying out bits and pieces of what he’s envisioning. He sketches moves and positions in a notebook.  In a wonderful interview with CBS, he states, “I try and create choreography that’s in conversation with the music that the audience is hearing.” He further remarks, “…a lot of times I’ll start to think about choreography in relation to a certain piece of music and I’ll immediately start to see a certain dancer in my mind.”

Over time, he and an assistant choreographer start working with one ballerina, who tries out steps and combinations for him, adding her suggestions and feedback as to what feels right. As days go by, we then get multiple dancers in the practice001 room, as Justin progresses in the development of his dance. I was interested in what a collaborative process it was, although he didn’t hesitate to say no if a suggestion didn’t flow with his vision. He corrected people (nicely but firmly) on the tiniest movements if required. He adapted to what people could do and couldn’t do, in terms of artistry and flow of his specific dance. From the CBS interview:  “I’ve always thought of the process of creating ballets as being this kind of team effort.”

As a novelist, I wondered if people were enjoying this collaboration? I would think dancers would love to be the first to perform a new piece, created with them as the template. But was Justin’s move into choreography something others would be jealous of? There are so few places in the highest, rarefied circles of classical ballet, as I understand things. How did he feel about making this transition to creating dance? He still dances himself – we get to see bits and pieces of him performing  – but we also caught a glimpse of the dancer’s mortality as he received treatments for some issue. I wondered if he felt the chance to create ballets was bittersweet? He is apparently a soloist dancer as well, according to information I found online.

004We saw the costume designers at work, from first concepts to finished outfits. (Pilling? They actually worried about pilling?) We saw the intricacies of the stage lighting design for the specific dance. All I can say there is WOW. High tech.  We saw rehearsals. My mind boggled at the idea of creating steps for all these people to perform simultaneously, keeping the dancers in constant, beautiful, different motions, and telling the story besides. May I say WOW one more time???!

There was a very evocative moment when Mr. Peck rode the subway home late at night, dressed like any other young guy going home from college maybe, yet he can do these amazing things as a dancer and a choreographer.

I wished the documentary had included more narration or subtitles at least. Several times obviously Important Personages either watched the dance in rehearsal or gave Mr. Peck advice, or both, yet not being a ballet cognoscenti I had no idea who they were.

A word about the dancers themselves. They…are…amazing. There was one moment where a ballerina goes en pointe and I just wanted to gasp at the incredible grace and perfection, and transformation of an ordinary human into some magical being. And this was in rehearsal gear, no makeup, no enhancements, just her. And her hardwon perfection. To me it was worth watching the whole documentary just to see that one thrilling moment.

I found it very interesting that one of the Important Personages clued Mr. Peck into the fact that the orchestra hadn’t been all that crazy about his choice of music. This happened006 late in the game, toward the end of rehearsals. It was suggested he go speak to the orchestra, let them know how much he appreciated them. This appeared at the time to be a totally alien concept to Mr. Peck but he gamely did so. I was fascinated by this whole interaction. Without the music, there is no ballet. Without the orchestra, there is no performance on the big stage. (The dancers had a wonderful pianist playing for them at rehearsals.) So my novelist’s brain was transfixed by this glimpse into the relationship between the dancers and the musicians. It was also interesting that the conductor seemed surprised and a bit reluctant to agree to Mr. Peck’s request, but did. I could write a whole other post about how fascinating it was to watch the conductor working with the orchestra.

I’m used to actors telling each other to break a leg before a performance, which obviously wouldn’t be too comfortable for dancers to say. Instead, they were constantly saying merde to each other. I found various theories online as to why this word but the one I liked most (and saw most often) was that in 1800’s Paris, if a performance was really great, the members of high society would flock to see it and their carriage horses would pile up a lot of merde out there in the street while waiting.

But back to the documentary, we do get to see Mr. Peck watching his new dance performed to a very warm reaction from the audience. He then hastens backstage to get ready for his own performance later in the evening, in a different ballet.

Here’s an excellent description of the new ballet itself:

We never get to see the entire performance in the documentary, sadly. I have no idea how long the piece takes to perform.

I definitely got my wish for some insight into dancers themselves, and the creative process for bringing the world a beautiful new dance.

(I’m illustrating this post with some of my Victorian trade (advertising cards) from the 1800’s.) The trailer for the movie is below…


2 comments on “Ballet 422 Dance As A Creative Process

  1. As a dancer (and writer) myself, this was an insightful read! It’s funny to realize how “normal” things can be quite fascinating when we stop to think about how it appears to non-dancers. I particularly enjoyed reading the bit about the orchestra. Many of my performances have used “canned” music, but I’ve had the joy of performing with live orchestras throughout my performance career and it is always more exciting (and more unpredictable!). It keeps you on your toes (quite literally) when your conductor is particularly sleepy and your jig becomes a dirge (and don’t get me started on when the conductor is overly-caffeinated!), or when the usual trumpet soloist is out sick and his back-up misses an important cue. A great orchestra can take an emotional dance to an entirely new level, for both the dancer and the audience. (FYI – “merde” is unique to ballet only, in my experience. Most other-than-ballet dancers still use “break a leg!” As a younger dance student, we’d say “merde” before our ballet concerts, but “break a leg” for everything else. Traditions are so odd!)

    • Thank you for the comments! Especially about the music – I really appreciated the insights you provided. As you could tell from the post, no doubt, I’m really a neophyte in this whole area, but I so enjoyed the glimpse of the ballet world…I just HAD to write a post. Best wishes!

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