Dancer As Director
If you have paid close attention to popular culture over the last several years, you might believe ballet, an artistic dance form predicated on grace, poise and strength, has been reduced to loud melodrama and climactic meltdowns. Black Swan, Bunheads, and Breaking Pointe, while they contain certain merits, have all contributed in distorting and reducing something beautiful into something beautifully toxic.
Ballet 422, Jody Lee Lipes’ observational documentary about a young choreographer, seems devoted to escaping this current prejudice. Part of that is the subject matter. Justin Peck, the 25 year-old choreographer in question, is a budding star at the New York City Ballet. A member of the corps-de-ballet since 2007, he’s been commissioned to craft the company’s 422nd show. It’s called “Paz De La Jolla,” and the film, shot in 2013, follows his two-month journey of creation and preparation.
What makes this largely procedural story fascinating—what makes it authentic and engaging and insightful—is that it doesn’t use any typical documentary devices. Lipes abstains from narration and talking heads. Besides a few necessary title cards, he’s content to capture Peck and his arsenal of finely tuned dancers speaking — or in most cases dancing — for themselves. That leaves a lot of room to watch his dance take shape, to see body postures leave his notebook and take human form. Part of the intrigue is watching his esoteric scribbles and commands turn into visual poetry.
And so, peeking down hallways and meandering through practice rooms, you find little central drama. You just have to infer it. In some ways, the film is just mimicking Peck. He appears calm, confident, slightly anxious. He rarely raises his voice or asserts anything too aggressively, letting his dancers suggest slight alterations to his vision. We follow him home on the subway and watch him dissect film from the day’s rehearsals. At one point the myopic details of a certain repeated leg kick zoom out to a full dance sequence. The skill and fluidity become overwhelming.
But Ballet 422 also functions as an ode to the collaborative process. The same work ethic is happening all over the David H. Koch theater, whether from above (lighting) or below (the orchestra). Costume designers mix colors in washing machines and jot notes on hems and trims. The soundtrack, when it’s not filled with piano, finds life in the daily noises — scissors cutting, sewing machines stitching, shoes tapping, the conductor breathing out melodies.
Lipes has directed a few episodes of Girls but seems uninterested in exploring relationships or cliques. You just see smart, comprehensive filmmaking. Whatever another director might have achieved by speaking privately with each dancer or delivering background information, you still feel Lipes’ cinema verite simplicity is enough, that he hasn’t forgotten something. You get the intimate conversations and awkward interactions before the premiere. You get the spectacle of the curtain rising on opening night. You get Peck’s rather tame reaction to it all unfolding. And finally, you get the feeling that these arduous weeks of dedication have become a fleeting success, and just never quite as fulfilling to the person who has earned it all.