The Forced Abundance of Justin Peck
New York City Ballet’s over-reliance on Justin Peck to produce highlights the tensions between twenty-first-century demands of a ballet company and ghosts of choreographers past.
Justin Peck was only twenty-five in Ballet 422, Jody Lee Lipes’s 2014 documentary about the creation of Paz de la Jolla: the 422nd ballet for New York City Ballet and the third of Peck’s career at NYCB. Paz, though an early work, has many of the Peck fixings, including fashionable costumes and modernized balletic movement. It’s ballet for a new era and audience, attuned to feelings of youthful jubilance. The film has an air of insouciance, but in a scene capturing Peck at home, he displays a deep loneliness while watching rehearsal footage, both humbled and fearful of the task before him.
From the start of his commissions—beginning in 2012 with In Creases, an architectural exploration of symmetry—Peck was posed as the promise, culturally and choreographically, of NYCB’s next era. Showing off Peck’s potential for movement creation, In Creases is surprisingly strong for a debut. The dancers look joyful and dance with freedom, ownership, and an accentuated ballon. Finally, a peer creating art for them.
For Year of the Rabbit, Peck’s second work, the company invested more. Former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor appeared in promotional materials for Rabbit and originated a principal role. Taylor had a reputation as a spunky ballerina, and her involvement in a Peck ballet further associated him with the hipper contingency of the company, not just devoted technicians, but dancers engaged in larger artistic conversations. Upon retiring, Taylor relocated to LA to work with the Los Angeles Dance Project, a dance company started by former NYCB dancer Benjamin Millepied.
Ballet’s status as a “high art” is a perennial thorn in its side. A ballet company will, at times, have conflicting priorities: the development of the art form and the survival of the institution. The latter translates into bodies in seats and tickets sold, leaving companies to make decisions for enterprise’s sake, often to the detriment of ballet. Indie musician Sufjan Stevens created the score for Rabbit. Stevens would ensure a broader audience; a non-ballet fan may want to hear Stevens’s music played while seeing the company perform for the first time—a boon for New York City Ballet’s marketing department, but a lesser artistic experience for audiences, new or old.
Peck was a savvy choice by Peter Martins, NYCB’s former artistic director, who had been responsible for most of the company’s new choreography. Martins’s creations were most noticed, if at all, within the ballet world. His decision to use composers like John Adams, or feature immensely difficult partnering, wouldn’t pique the interest of the non-balletomane. Peck’s promise was instrumental in his transition from dancer to choreographer. When viewed as a solution for New York City Ballet’s future, he became the solution.
New York City Ballet can’t be understood without reference to its history. The ballets Balanchine choreographed while at NYCB’s helm set the tone for the type of art to be created there. Balanchine, and then Jerome Robbins, as medium-expanding artists, defined New York City Ballet’s place in dance history. Peck’s work is meant to supply an analogous contemporary contribution. But as companies attempt an identity beyond their historical one, contemporary choreographers will find their work compared to that of their predecessors. Between Balanchine and Robbins, as canon, Justin Peck is sometimes compared to Robbins due to his penchant for creating sneaker ballets; but, unlike both Robbins and Balanchine, Peck lacks range. The trajectory of his choreography has shown this.
We’re nearly ten years and over 35 ballets into Justin Peck’s career at NYCB, and already his early works are mostly not performed. Most of his ballets, such as The Decalogue (2017), only appeared in the season of their creation and a few times thereafter. His collaboration with Bryce Dessner of The National, The Most Incredible Thing (2016) based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, with hugely elaborate costumes (in promotion footage, Tiler Peck dons a pair of wings), has been performed only once since its premiere. He’s created throw-away pieces for galas like Bright and Solo that are relied on as program filler (interestingly his 2017 Fashion Gala piece Pulcinella Variations is his strongest ballet). What’s emerged from Justin Peck’s work is a replicable approach to choreography. The use of modern music and hip costumes was innovative until a Peck piece couldn’t exist without one of them. He’s come to rely on certain movement sequences—capitulated maneuvers where dancers go in two directions at once, bent arabesque balances, turned-in pirouettes, and lots of wistful staring—the New York Magazine article from January 2023, defining what a Peck piece is, was more an admission of unoriginality than an accentuation of method. Copland Dance Episodes promised to be Peck’s magnum opus. It was a lovely viewing experience, especially hearing the Copland score live, but it came across as a retrospective. Peck is too young to have outdone himself already.
Balanchine and Robbins’s creative abundance is the product of an innate vision and time. Their works, even in less notable ballets (Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations, the pas de deux in Robbins’s In G Major), present vast movement scores in response to musical ones. Peck has been forced into the role of producer without a full and developed artistic approach. Peck’s artistic vision has maybe been overestimated, or New York City Ballet’s fear of oblivion has become overbearing. Perhaps the young choreographer will slow down when Alexei Ratmansky—arguably his counterpart as the future of ballet over at American Ballet Theatre—joins Peck as the second choreographer in residence at NYCB this summer. The title Ballet 422 captures Peck’s reality. 422 is a number that belongs to Peck, but it’s also just another ballet made. Someone else came along for the 423rd. Many numbers later, Peck is still producing.