WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
It is hard to imagine how the New York City Ballet could have a more distinguished pedigree. Its founding choreographers were the dance luminaries, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
Today, New York City Ballet encompasses a cadre of more than 90 top-tier dancers as well as a repertory of many distinguished works. It is regarded as one of the world’s greatest ballet companies.
“Ballet 422” focuses on 25-year old Justin Peck. He was a lowly member of the company’s corps de ballet, not a featured dancer. (Since the film, Peck has been elevated to the status of soloist). However, Peck had displayed considerable promise as a choreographer. Following the success of his prior work, “Year of the Rabbit,” Peck was commissioned to create another piece, “Paz de la Jolla.” It is the four hundred and twenty second new work in the company’s history, hence the title of the film.
The documentary, “Ballet 422,” provides us with a behind the scenes perspective on the progression of Peck’s work. We follow the development of “Paz de la Jolla.” from its inception and first rehearsal all the way through its world debut on the stage of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.
Choreographers are often depicted as bellowing, overbearing martinets, who bludgeon their dancers with quixotic demands. Peck turns out to be the antithesis of this stereotype. He is a soft-spoken, laid back fellow, who plays well with others. Although Peck seems altogether pleasant, he is lacking in charisma.
We see Peck interacting with three principal dancers, Sterling Hyltin, Amar Ramasar, and Tiler Peck (no relationship to the choreographer). Peck patiently discusses his suggestions about the best way to execute his proposed dance steps. He approached them in an egalitarian fashion. In the background, ballet master, Albert Evans, intermittently chimes in with his own recommendations. In similar fashion, Peck readily accepts feedback from costume designers and other technical specialists.
This is the third feature, directed by Jody Lee Lipes. His prior two films, “Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same” and “NY Export: Opus Jazz” are also studies in the artistic process. Lipes has also been involved with music videos, commercials, and episodes of Lena Dunham’s “Girls.”
Lipes rejects standard documentary techniques in several salient regards. There is no omniscient narrator or other effort to contextualize the footage. There is no defined plot and the dialogue seems altogether random. Any viewer who expects to see the finished version of “Paz de la Jolla” will be disappointed. The film ends without any such depiction. Indeed, there is no discernible denouement. The film fails to celebrate Peck’s considerable achievement of bringing his creative vision to fruition. Instead, the viewer is left with a totally anti-climactic scene. Peck is seen walking away from the stage, jettisoning his role as choreographer and resuming his role has a generic member of the corps.
I remain unconvinced that these anomalies from documentary conventions enhance the film in any way. Indeed, I found the filmmaker’s artistic decisions to be quite disconcerting. As a result of Sipes’ approach, his film compares unfavorably with “Ballets Russes,” about the itinerant dance troupe. That documentary, written and helmed by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, embraced traditional documentary techniques. It was vastly more informative and entertaining than “Ballet 422.”
“Ballet 422” purports to be steeped in cinema verité. However, nowhere in the film is there a display of temper tantrum or so-called artistic differences. How realistic is that? “Ballet 422” was made under the auspices of the New York City Ballet. It remains unclear whether they dictated the curious format of the film or Sipes deserves culpabilty for it.
Dance fanatics will likely savor “Ballet 422.” However, others will find the film to be an unfocused disappointment, devoid of satisfying plot, dialogue, narrative trajectory, or denouement.
** PG (for brief language) 75 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.