When New York City Ballet announced last year that it had commissioned Justin Peck, a then-24-year-old dancer in its corps de ballet who had only ever made dances in workshops and pick-up performances, to create two new ballets for the company, the audience's curiosity was piqued. Hopes were high that NYCB had found a fresh talent to add new ballets to its incomparable repertory.
Peck didn’t disappoint: Three months after the first ballet, In Creases, premiered during the company's summer season at Saratoga Springs, New Yorkers saw the first performances of Year of the Rabbit (scored by indie-folk songwriter Sufjan Stevens) at Lincoln Center, which revealed Peck to be a choreographer of remarkable gifts. Year of the Rabbit overflowed with unique images, made the most of its star dancers’ talents, and allowed the corps de ballet to share the spotlight. Audiences were already clamoring for Peck’s next ballet.
That new ballet, as it turns out, will arrive much sooner than expected. Replacing a scheduled Peter Martins ballet, Peck’s Paz de La Jolla premieres at NYCB on January 31, sharing a program with works by George Balanchine and Alexei Ratmansky.
Peck met with Ryan Wenzel, the Rail’s Dance Editor, a few weeks before opening night to discuss the new work, his artistic process, and balancing the roles of dancer and choreographer.
Ryan Wenzel (Rail): Tell me about your new ballet.
Justin Peck: It’s set to a piece of music I’ve had in my back pocket for a couple of years, Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta La Jolla. The composer always interested me and writes music that works well for dance. This symphony was written as a tribute to a place in California near where I’m from. Martinu was Czech, but there was a period of time in his life when he lived in America. He wrote most of this piece while he was in New York City. There’s very little written about it. I went to the Performing Arts Library, and there were are a couple of books about him that mentioned the piece, but nothing about what he was thinking when he wrote it. I had to create my own interpretation.
Rail: Was it an easy score to work with?
Peck: It’s really challenging count-wise. I had to spend a good amount of time translating the score into counts for the dancers. The first movement is written in 4/4, but it doesn’t sound like that. It doesn’t have that even beat. The way the musicians hear it isn’t the same way the dancers dance it.
Rail: How does the ballet look?
Peck: It has 18 dancers, the same number as Year of the Rabbit. The principal couple is Amar Ramasar and Sterling Hyltin, and Tiler Peck acts as the ringleader. Then there’s a corps of five men and 10 women. It’s structured in three movements. The first and third movements have a real “hustle and bustle” feel to them, and I wonder if New York City rubbed off on Martinu in that regard. The second movement hints at wave patterns: it has a back and forth, rocking nature to it. The movement takes from a lot of sources.
Rail: What kinds of sources?
Peck: The fluctuation of the tides, the push and pull between the sea and the land. There’s a lot of that, especially in the second movement. Also, how nature can be this totally beautiful thing but also very dangerous – and how there can be a fine line between the two. I actually started working on this ballet right before Hurricane Sandy.
Rail: What do you typically look for in a ballet score?
Peck: It’s hard to say. It has to speak to me in an intangible way. Usually, it should have a pulse. I’m also attracted to melody.
Rail: Your two previous pieces for NYCB, In Creases and Year of the Rabbit, have used scores that, to my knowledge, haven’t been choreographed before. Is it important to you that the music hasn’t been used?
Peck: Yeah, but apparently this piece of music [Sinfonietta La Jolla] has been choreographed. I didn’t realize it until a pianist pointed it out to me in the middle of a rehearsal. Christopher Wheeldon choreographed it [as Rush, in 2003] for Houston Ballet. Certain choreographers defined themselves by composers, and I would probably avoid working with their music. The obvious one is Stravinsky with Balanchine. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t work with his music, but it’s a loaded thing to do. Or even Chopin with Robbins. Even recently, Christopher Wheeldon has done a lot with Ligeti, and Alexei Ratmansky with Shostakovich. I love Symphony No. 9, the first piece Ratmansky worked with on his series of ballets. I always wanted to choreograph it. I’ve got to scrap that one now.
Rail: Paz de La Jolla is replacing a premiere by Peter Martins. How did that come about?
Peck: I had a meeting with Peter the week after our last season ended, in October. I thought it was going to be a follow-up to the premiere I’d just had, but he said, “I have a dilemma: The composer for my piece is delayed and can’t get me the music. I’m wondering if you have any ideas.” I said, “Yeah, I do.” Two weeks later, I started in the studio with the dancers, which seemed daunting at the time. I prepare a lot before I start working with dancers, and usually it takes a few months, while I let it all sink in. The process was more rushed this time, but at least I had been listening to the music for a couple of years.
Rail: You’re active on Twitter and other forms of social media. Do you pay attention to what people are saying about your work?
Peck: I read all the criticism. It’s not all good criticism, but I like reading it because it makes me think about my work. With Year of the Rabbit, for example, some people really liked the pas de deux for Janie Taylor and Craig Hall and didn’t care for the rest, or they loved the rest and didn’t care for the pas de deux. It was fascinating for me to hear that.
Rail: Is there more pressure to succeed after your last ballet’s success?
Peck: I don’t feel that way. I’m eager to keep working. I always feel really excited by whatever I’m working on next. I’m working on this new ballet, but we’re also putting together Year of the Rabbit again, and it’s not as exciting for me to go back. It’s all about the process for me.
Rail: What process do you follow when choreographing a ballet?
Peck: I start with the music and listen to it over and over. The next step is structuring the piece: deciding what I want to happen in this fragment and then the next. I’ve been working with big groups lately, so I sketch patterns. A lot of the time it doesn’t look like anything on paper, but it’s helpful. I start to create a notebook of a mapped-out ballet and go to the studio alone to improvise to the music. Sometimes I’ll film myself dancing, and sometimes I won’t. When I get into the studio with the dancers, the movement usually becomes something else. If I give them material, they will meet me halfway. That’s the most exciting part. The result is often different from what I imagined it to be. Usually it’s a good thing.
Rail: When I first saw Year of the Rabbit, I was struck by the variety of images you created, and how evocative they were. Parts reminded me Whack-a-Mole and subway turnstiles. Where do you find images for your ballets?
Peck: Well, we all take the subway every morning. [Laughs] Most of the images provoked by the music. There’s a part in the new piece, with Tiler Peck and five men, which looks like five construction workers passing around materials. It has an “elves in a workshop building toys” quality. The music made me think of that.
Rail: I just finished reading Secret Muses, Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Frederick Ashton. He speaks about the value of his apprenticeship with Bronislava Nijinska in Paris and how every choreographer should have a mentor. Do you think that’s true?
Peck: I don’t feel I need that, but being in this company and working with various choreographers, and taking mental notes on how they work, have played a huge role in shaping how I work in the studio. And when I was at the School of American Ballet, I went to the ballet almost every night. That was really important in shaping my taste. I’m not sure choreography can be taught. The way composition is taught at Juilliard, for example, gives the fundamental skills but in some ways limits the imagination. Students are expected to compose in a certain way, and there’s a certain seriousness that needs to be shown in the way they write or it’s not taken seriously. It puts parameters around what they can do, and I don’t like that.
Rail: Which ballets have shaped your taste?
Peck: Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, Serenade, Symphony in C, Rubies, Liebeslieder Walzer, Allegro Brillante, Le tombeau de Couperin, Agon, and Ivesiana; Robbins’ The Cage and Glass Pieces; Ratmansky’s Namouna. [Balanchine’s] Symphony in Three Movements might be my all-time favorite.
Rail: Which choreographers outside ballet interest you?
Peck: I’ve always really enjoyed Ohad Naharin’s work. I like Mark Morris a lot: He really understands music, and it’s refreshing to see that. Too often, I just see dance and wallpaper music. I’ve also been really interested in Crystal Pite. I like Merce Cunningham’s process and his passion, but I don’t feel moved by his work. It always seems like an exercise to me.
Rail: In addition to having two of your ballets in repertory, you seem to be dancing a lot this season.
Peck: I’m even dancing the night of my premiere, in [Alexei Ratmansky’s] Concerto DSCH. I’ll go out, take my bow as a choreographer, change, put my make up on and warm up. I don’t know how many people have done that.
Rail: Would you ever dance in a ballet you choreographed?
Peck: There’s actually one dancer who has to be away for two performances of the new ballet — one of the corps dancers. I thought, “I could just step in and do that,” but there’s a lot to focus on then. I wouldn’t be able to be the eyes and really see the ballet. I’ve thought of the history of Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor dancing in their own work. Even Balanchine did it in Don Quixote [performing opposite Suzanne Farrell]… but that was a whole other thing. [Both laugh.] And Robbins danced in Fancy Free. I’ve thought of continuing that tradition, but I probably won’t.
Rail: Have you considered giving up dancing and choreographing full-time?
Peck: I’ve thought about it. The next couple of years will be telling. I want to have the right balance, of being challenged as a dancer and a choreographer. I still want to grow and move up through the ranks as a ballet dancer here. We’ll see.