Ballet film is surprisingly witty, unsurprisingly beautiful

Ballet
Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy

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At first glance, Justin Peck is no different from the other members of the New York City Ballet. He is of average stature and build, with dark hair and a quiet manner. It is only his eyes — which are deep set and curiously alert — that hint at the force of creative energy that must be swirling in his mind.

At the young age of 25, Peck has been commissioned to choreograph the New York City Ballet’s 422nd ballet”. His choreographic journey as the company’s youngest-ever resident choreographer is the subject of Jody Lee Lipes’ documentary “Ballet 422.” But dance film lovers beware: This is not a high-drama, high-intensity movie in the likes of “Black Swan.” There are no bloodthirsty rivalries, traumatic injuries or complicated love triangles — in fact, there is hardly so much as a brief catfight. Shot in the cinema verite style, “Ballet 422” offers a simple and surprisingly fresh new spin on the ballet world.

Whimsical and lighthearted, the ballet “Paz de la Jolla” is set to a 1935 composition by Bohuslav Martinu and is roughly based on Peck’s childhood in San Diego. Peck is given just two months to fully choreograph, stage, and produce the roughly 20-minute long work. This is a tall order for any ballet, even one that does not require the lavish designs of a classic such as the “Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake.”

Those viewers expecting to see the “Paz de la Jolla” in its entirety may be disappointed: The focus of “Ballet 422” is not on the ballet or even the dancers themselves, but on the process by which Peck shifts his conceptions from the studio to the stage.

Lipes captures the ballet unfurling from a variety of unusual viewpoints: through Peck’s cellphone as he records himself dancing in the studio, from the angle of the ballerinas’ frenzied feet and — most frequently — from Peck’s perspective as he observes the dancers with his unique brand of silent intensity. In one particularly memorable shot, the camera captures the back of Peck’s head as the out-of-focus ballerinas glide before him in a dreamy haze of watercolors. The scene is admirable not only for giving such a tantalizing taste of the ballet but also for giving audiences a sense of its profound and rewarding beauty.

Though “Ballet 422” may lack in the drama department, it packs a surprising amount of humor into its 75 minutes. Both the costume designer, with his playful quips and flamboyant personality, and the overzealous orchestra conductor had the audience laughing. The dancers, too, are buoyant despite the difficult new choreography they must learn: A particularly funny moment occurred when the ever straight-faced Peck attempted to correct a young corps member who cannot master what Peck calls “tree frog hands.”

But despite Peck’s unflappable demeanor, he is admirably flexible and open to change. When told that the patterned costumes cause the dancers to look less uniform, he remains unfazed, saying, “I don’t want to do the same thing, ever.”

“Ballet 422” is a film that lauds the quiet introspection of the creative process; its charm lies in the pleasure of witnessing the piece come to life, like watching a sunlit rosebud delicately unfurl each petal. Lipes’ camera documents as pencil sketches are painstakingly crafted into fully fledged costumes and follows the transition from harshly lit studio to the glowing stage. True, this amount of detail removes some of the glamor and mystery of the art, but the viewer is left with a new appreciation for the results of Peck’s diligence, focus and ingenuity. If anything, “Paz de la Jolla” is all the more breathtaking after every element is exposed. In an unexpected way, this is a film that revitalizes modern ballet as a genre, not by tritely exploiting its melodramatic elements but by revealing the simple beauty of the art form — the inspiration that shapes vision into reality.

Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected].