Ballet 422 is the kind of arts documentary I like to sink into. It’s a cinema verité immersion into the lonely yet collaborative process of putting a new work of performance on its feet. In this case, it’s a dance piece, commissioned by the New York City Ballet for its 2013 winter season. The choreographer? A 25-year-old member of the company, Justin Peck. He’s part of the lowest dancers’ tier, the corps de ballet, not a star.
The only dancer tapped to create a new work for the 2013 winter season, he has less than two months to get it (literally) on its feet. So the camera follows him as he instructs dancers more acclaimed, so far, than he is on how to physically embody his ideas.
The scenes in the rehearsal hall are fascinating. Like any arts discipline, dance has its own shorthand language, shared among the artists. Speaking as much with their bodies as their mouths, Peck and the dancers sometimes seem to communicate telepathically as they refine the exact blend of swoop and muscle, the extraordinary precision and strength required to make dance look like what it isn’t: easy.
The film doesn’t ask Peck or his dancers to explain their work. Director Jody Lee Lipes doesn’t interview anyone, and there’s no narration. This fly-on-the-wall approach recalls the verité work of Albert Maysles, who died last week at age 88. With his brother David, Maysles created memorable documentaries including Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter.The Gothic mother-daughter team of the former presided over a rotting mansion full of raccoons, countless cats and a lot of junk. In the latter, a music fan got stabbed to death during the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in 1969.
Nothing as pungent or frightening happens in Ballet 422. The closest thing to a crisis is the discovery that some of the dancers’ costumes don’t fit exactly right. None of this is traditionally gripping stuff, but the tick-tock approach is enough to engross anyone who enjoys seeing how many people work together to create one work of art.
There’s a lovely scene, for instance, showing the orchestra’s conductor in rehearsal, grunting as he waves the baton at his musicians, and shouting, “Good! Good!” We also wander backstage into the costume shop, where designers shove the newly sewn costumes into industrial washing machines to dye them just the right shade of blue. Here’s where artwork meets grunt work, a reminder of how hard-working everyone else involved has to be to help realize one man’s vision onstage.
On opening night, before the performance, a tuxedoed Peck has to schmooze with the hypermoneyed patrons in the lobby (including one socialite with a face seriously damaged by expensive surgeries). He watches his premiere from the wings, takes a bow and then — in the loveliest observation about the glamour and the grime of a life in the arts — retreats to a dressing room to prepare to dance in someone else’s piece on the evening’s program.
A downside of the film derives from one of its strengths. Peck is so serious a young man, such a furrow-browed artist, that he’s not a lot of fun to be around. He’s aloof. (At one point, he’s gently but firmly encouraged to speak to the in-house orchestra and thank the musicians for their work.)
Choosing not to interview Peck, throw him enlivening questions, make him reveal something about himself (or even laugh), director Lipes never shows us what makes the man tick. Any personality the dancer-choreographer may have is consumed by his work. That’s a tribute to his artistry, yes, but it gives Ballet 422 a slightly chilly, austere air. Peck’s dance may be dynamic, but he isn’t.
Ballet 422. A documentary by Jody Lee Lipes. Rated PG. 75 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.