Original talent

A portrait of Justin Peck


© Francette Levieux / OnP

Original talent

Resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet, Justin Peck was soloist dancer before creating his first pieces. No doubt that the style of Balanchine, founder of the American company, deeply influenced the young choreographer. As a matter of fact, Justin Peck does not hide this influence. However, he brings a personal impetus and breathes new life into Balanchinian neoclassicism, reflecting the spirit of a generation and an artistic community. A fruitful encounter with the Paris Opera Ballet dancers.   

For those who saw the world premier of “Year of the Rabbit” in New York in October 2012, it was obvious that an original talent had just revealed itself to the eyes of a large audience. It was the first ballet that Justin Peck, a young dancer of the New York City Ballet, created for his company at the Lincoln Center. The ballet’s brimming vitality and dynamism were rare even for the New York City Ballet, and it contained an abundance of innovative ideas. The dancers were stretched out on the floor or tossed into the air and along the stage like bowling balls; they formed groups in perpetual movement, assembled in the shape of floating waves or ephemeral architectural structures that transformed themselves from one moment to the next.

Since this first brilliant success, Justin Peck’s creativity has run unbridled, and the young man has become one of the most sought-after choreographers of the United States. He has created ballets for companies such as the San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, LA Dance Project and the New York City Ballet, where he has been appointed to the post of resident choreographer. He just completed his 28th choreography there, which is also his first story ballet, “The most incredible thing”. The process of creation of his ballet “Paz de la Jolla” is the subject of a documentary entitled “Ballet 422”. The American press hails Justin Peck as one of the most promising choreographers of the new millennium. Even though he continuously creates new ballets, the 28-old Peck regularly appears on stage as a soloist of the New York City Ballet, including in his own works.    

In Creases
In Creases © Sébastien Mathé / OnP

Following his appointment to the post of Director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Benjamin Millepied invited his former colleague to leap over the Atlantic and choreograph his first ballet for a non-American company. In March 2016, Peck already presented “In Creases” at the Paris Opera, a work which was premiered in Saratoga Springs in 2012. This seventeen-minute ballet was a meticulously constructed concentrate of energy which the Parisian dancers executed with contagious exuberance. The press and public were captured and wondered what Peck would create at the end of the season for a company whose style considerably differs from that of his home company.

The New York City Ballet’s heritage remains profoundly marked by its founder-choreographer, George Balanchine. Peck remembers that seeing the New York City Ballet dance Balanchine every evening when he studied at the School of American Ballet triggered his desire to create choreographies. He particularly admires Balanchine’s sense of structure and says that if Balanchine had not existed, he would probably not have become a choreographer.

If Balanchine had not existed?

The idea seems inconceivable, given the extent to which Balanchine has changed the face of the choreographic world. The “revolution” of Balanchine, who privileged clear and fluid lines, who did not want the sets and costumes to distract the eye from the dancers’ bodies and movements, who preferred “non-narrative” ballets and according to whom “dancing is music made visible”, has affected the entire universe of ballet. Balanchine, in turn, was strongly influenced by Marius Petipa, to whose elegance he juxtaposed his brio, an air of coolness, and a sometimes particularly forceful and demonstrative dance style.

It would be a vain endeavour to list those who have been marked, inspired, influenced by him. Balanchine is an unavoidable phenomenon: his choreographies are danced by almost all major ballet companies. A very large number of dancers learn to appropriate his vocabulary in order to interpret his ballets, and those among them who become choreographers confront this model, by rejecting it, imitating it, quoting it or absorbing elements of it. This also applies to choreographers who have chosen a completely different path: thus, John Neumeier evokes Balanchinian movements in several of his ballets, such as “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Orpheus”. Hortensio in John Cranko’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and Frédéri in Roland Petit’s “L’Arlésienne” revolve their arms like the lyre-playing Apollo in Balanchine’s “Apollo”, but the ridiculous vanity of Cranko’s lyre player and the fury of Petit’s desperate peasant contrast with the serenity of Balanchine’s god. The three choreographers, pioneers of a genre of story ballet which Americans associate with Europe, do not share Balanchine’s aesthetic or philosophy, but the frequent allusions to the works of the founder of the New York City Ballet attest his important place in the history of dance. Balanchine also paved the way for the innovations of William Forsythe and Wayne MacGregor, and he has marked a new Russian prodigy working in New York, as Artist in Residence at the American Ballet Theatre: Alexei Ratmansky.

The spirit of the Russian pioneer of american ballet still reigns at the New York City Ballet, where his works are constantly performed and carefully transmitted from dancer to dancer. The choreographers who are or were part of the company are directly influenced by him: in addition to Benjamin Millepied, one could mention the current director of the New York City Ballet, Peter Martins, and Christopher Wheeldon, former resident choreographer of the company who currently occupies the function of “Artistic Associate” at the Royal Ballet in London. William Forsythe, who has himself been compared to Balanchine, proclaimed that Balanchine’s legitimate heirs were Alexei Ratmansky and Justin Peck.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Entre chien et loup
Entre chien et loup © Francette Levieux / OnP

Balanchine said: “There are no new steps, but only new combinations.” Like Balanchine, Justin Peck uses an essentially classical movement vocabulary, and he loves pure lines and point shoes. However, he has the gift to renew this vocabulary and to use it in his manner to express something personal. In Peck’s ballets, the eye is rarely too distracted by imposing sets, costumes, accessories or projections that hide the movements. Peck focuses on formations of the corps de ballet which he arranges with a mathematic accuracy that derives from his musical sensitivity, a trait that can often be found in Balanchine. Like the latter, who found first-rate collaborators in composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Peck, who studied the piano during his training at the School of American Ballet, is not afraid of complex scores or commissioned music, and he frequently cooperates with composers such as Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner.

Justin Peck’s ballets carry his individual stamp, but they also express the spirit of his generation and of his artistic environment in New York. Peck has absorbed multiple inspirations – he names Alexei Ratmansky as another important influence – and he loves to experiment; his collaborators include for instance street artists and folk/ indie rock composers. His ballet “The most incredible thing”, a free adaptation of a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, alludes to several important figures in the history of dance in the broad sense of the word, from Loie Fuller to Oskar Schlemmer, and his choreography quotes Balanchine’s most emblematic pose from “Apollo”, the master’s first “narrative” ballet. But the world has changed since Balanchine’s era, and one could interpret the breathtaking rhythm of certain movement sequences and the mechanical precision of Peck’s choreographies as a reflection of the world’s acceleration and the growing importance of technology – Peck has also created an iPad App allowing users to explore their own choreographic talent.

Justin Peck tends to loosen the strict division of the dancer’s roles into male and female, solo and group parts. He tries unusual partnerships and combinations – two women, two men sketching a pas de deux, fifteen men facing one strong woman, men who are carried by their colleagues… Furthermore, he likes to play with his ensembles: his performers dance lying on the floor, morph into living projectiles, robots or statues of Indian gods with multiple arms. One of Peck’s characteristics are his human fugues in which each dancer imitates or varies the movement of his or her predecessor.

In the new mixed bill at the Paris Opera, Peck’s creation will be presented alongside a ballet by George Balanchine which enters the repertoire of the company, “Brahms-Schönberg Quartet”. The challenge of a “tête-à-tête” with the master is significant, but it is almost certain that thanks to the numerous ideas in his brain and to his electrifying energy, he will once again dazzle his audience.

Iris Julia Bührle’s area of work at the University of Oxford focuses on Shakespeare and dance. She regularly publishes articles on dance and she recently participated in the BBC documentary entitled « The king who invented ballet : Louis XIV and the noble art of dance ». Her doctoral thesis, published in 2014, centers on the adaptation of literary works into choreographic pieces. She is also the author of a book about British dancer Robert Tewsley.

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