Justin Peck, 25, undertakes choreographing the company's 422nd original ballet - and he has just two months to do it. A documentary reveals a peek behind the scenes of the beautiful sport
If you think ballet is just for little girls dressed in tutus, try telling that to Jean-Claude Van Damme. The hulking action star of such classics as Bloodsport and Street Fighter studied classical ballet for years, and has called it “the hardest workout a man can do.”
Coming from a fighter who has kicked down a palm tree with his bare shin, that’s saying a lot. The seemingly effortless grace of ballet, that keeps hidden the layers of pain and sweat and hardwork hidden beneath, has always been a large part of the dance’s appeal.
Unlike more modern forms of dance, ballet has stayed remarkably consistent in its delicate beauty over the course of its 500-year-old history – a plié is a plié, and a pirouette is a pirouette, with little room for interpretation.
While modern choreography can always bring new energy to this ancient art form, the building blocks of the dance remain impressively steadfast. In recent history though, the curtain has been pulled back on the amount of grueling hard work that goes into making ballet appear so consistently light and graceful – the level of dedication and the hours of painstaking practice that go into creating such a refined art form is becoming an intrigue of its own, and is starting to get more recognition.
It’s created an increased interest in the inner workings of the ballet scene – more people are seeking to understand the sport, both as behind-the-scenes voyeurs, and as actual participants.
Taking part in ballet is no small feat – but while it may be is one of the most challenging sports in the world, as such, it’s also one of the most rewarding. The physical payoff alone is high – aside from a great cardiovascular workout, it’s a great complete workout that improves flexibility, tones muscles, and builds core strength, balance, and endurance at any age. If you’ve seen that video of Van Damme doing a split between two moving trucks – you better believe he’s relying on his years of ballet dancing for every aspect of that. The mental game also comes with plenty of benefits – practicing ballet can increase your concentration and your self-confidence.
Studies have found that there hidden benefits to emulating movements you see another person doing, as you do when learning dance – it can activate “mirror neurons” in the brain, which not only help us learn new skills, but can actually help us develop greater levels of empathy towards other people, in all aspects of life.
Professional ballet dancers are forced to struggle through an insanely stressful, fiercely competitive environment, where even a lifetime of training is often not enough to guarantee a career as a dancer – which is one reason taking ballet out for a test drive in a class environment is perhaps a better way to approach the sport than setting your sights on joining the New York City Ballet.
If you’re considering this, you’re certainly not the only one – ballet has been experiencing a surge in popularity in recent years, and is becoming a more mainstream form of exercise in the form of Pilates-ballet fusion classes, or beginner ballet-barre classes for adults. In this setting, athletic dilettantes can get all the physical and mental benefits of tackling this challenging, artistic sport – with none of the Black Swan style insanity.
There is something to be said for the allure that surrounds those that have made it to the upper echelons of the ballet world – there is an intrigue that comes with watching not just these professional performances, but also in getting a glimpse at what it takes to create this level of artistic perfection.
Ballet 422 is a new film that gives viewers exactly that, by documenting New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck’s journey in creating the company’s 422nd original piece. At 27 (but 25 during filming), Peck is the company’s youngest choreographer – as well as one of the company’s featured soloists.
The film gives us an intimate look inside his artistic process – from how he hones and develops ideas, to how he communicates them to his fellow dancers, down to the tiniest minutia, to ensure all the movements are exactly as he has envisioned them. No element of the process is left out – from Peck’s communication with the orchestra musicians, to his attention to how the costumes should sit.
Director Jody Lee Lipes has created a film that is refreshingly modern in its style, doing away with the standard interview voice-over narration in favor of a fly-on-the-wall observational style that allows viewers a more immediate feeling of presence.
Ballet 422 hits theaters February 6 (tomorrow) – between this film and a handful of beginner barre classes, you’ll be able to gain a much deeper appreciation for what goes into an art form you’ve always appreciated – both by practicing the movements yourself, and by seeing what goes into a professional rehearsal.
You may never nail those tours en l’air quite like the members of the New York City Ballet, but hey, with enough hard work, you just might be able to touch your toes.