During one scene in Jody Lee Lipes’ new documentary Ballet 422, lead choreographer Justin Peck is observed having a conversation with his pianist, who persuades him to conduct a sort of pep talk to the orchestra. The pianist deduces the overall mood of his band mates is lethargic and we follow Peck as he gives an impromptu appreciatory speech. The effect is immediately noticed and he’s surrounded by smiling faces and genuflective taps on their music stands.
It’s this amount of infinitesimal focus we’re given in Ballet 422, observing the process from its abstract humble beginning to opening night, sparing no quiet conversation on the color of the outfits or the numbing, repetitive steps as each dancer feels their way through their role.
Filmed throughout 2012 and leading up to the ballet opening in January of 2013 at the New York City Ballet, the film approaches its subject like a fly-on-the-wall, negating any direct speak to the camera, choosing to shuffle anonymously behind choreographer and dancer Justin Peck as he walks to and from his apartment and linger at the edges of the chosen dancers in the studio, simply observing and documenting both the mundane and the extraordinary.
We watch as the company navigates through their various roles in the dance, sometimes stumbling, sometimes offering advice and improving upon the movements. We’re given inside peeks at the conversation of the stage lighting. The costume design, prone to constant analysis and discussion on whether the waistline is too frumpy or how much neck and leg to show, almost becomes a film of its own. Who knew the way a dancer packs and separates her toes within the dance flat before going on stage would be so involved? Every crevice of the process is observed as if we’re engaged in a tense police procedural and lives hang in the balance. Just watching the physical and mental strain of the dancers as they explore their bodies and the movements becomes exhilarating. For a ballet novice such as myself, I found it captivating, which is the best praise one can give a documentary. This type of film is supposed to educate, enlighten and peel back the vestiges of its subject. Too many documentaries confuse their subject with an agenda. Ballet 422 doesn’t.
Ballet 422 (whose title is simply the number of dance showcased by the prolific New York company) will appeal to lovers of the art, yet it also provides a fascinating entry into the artistic process that could be applied to so many aspects of life. If we sometimes feel our jobs define ourselves, then choreographer Justin Peck is literally a backdrop within his own ballet. And the finale, without spoiling anything, reveals how life itself is a virtual ballet, endlessly stumbling until we get the steps just right, then poised to repeat and do it all over again whether we like it or not.