In Jody Lee Lipes’ exquisite “Ballet 422,” Justin Peck, the 25-year-old wunderkind choreographer behind the 422nd production of the venerated New York City Ballet, can be seen descending into the orchestra pit a night before the show’s unveiling. He’s been told shortly before that his selection of “Paz de la Jolla” wasn’t a popular choice initially amongst the musicians, but his reasons for the visit, which is implied to be unusual, appears to be less motivated by a desire to curry favor than to explain their place in the grand scheme of things by way of paying a compliment, expressing his commitment to “exposing the details and complexities” of their work.
As a dancer who climbed out of the lowest rungs of the company in 2007 to emerge as a soloist and a choreographer five years later, Peck is shown to understand the importance of harmony for a body — not just the one he personally inhabits, but the corporeal form taken by the 91 full-time dancers, the costume designers, the lighting department, the production crew and the orchestra that make up the NYCB. So it is with that in mind that Lipes, with a roving camera team that includes Nick Bentgen as a co-cinematographer, along with Joe Anderson, Sam Wootton, Zachary Stoltzfus, roams around the halls of the Ballet’s Lincoln Center haunts as if they were coursing through veins, exploring how each of facet of the production contributes to the glorious whole.
Like Peck, Lipes turns an inelegant process into a splendid presentation, obviously granted an all-access pass from the moment the choreographer first puts one foot in front of the other in a studio where he’s all alone except for a iPhone recording his moves to evaluate later to ultimately sitting in the back of the house watching the curtains rise on his interpretation of Bohuslav Martinu’s symphony in front of a full house. Through the film’s lens, every physical space is utilized for its full potential for extraordinary compositions, drawing on the mirrors in the practice studio and the distance between the seats in the David Koch Theater and the stage to replicate what Peck is seeing and tweaking. The end result is something that’s every bit the celebration of movement that Lipes’ last film involving dance, “NY Export: Opus Jazz” was, while deconstructing it to fully appreciate everything that goes in.
Although Peck is at the center of all the action, he isn’t necessarily the star of the film, instead sharing the spotlight with such backstage specialists as the company’s resident lighting director Mark Stanley and costumes designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Given less than two months to put on a show, the tension here isn’t between co-workers, the usual driver of intrigue in such documentaries, but against time, creating an urgency that makes all of the conversations about the creative direction of the production even more compelling. Lipes eschews interviews in favor of a fly-on-the-wall approach that allow the audience to be privy to debates about how far to push the lights for narrative purposes or how high the trim of the leotards of the dancers should be, to which Peck remarks, as a smirk creeps across his face, “They all have great legs, I think it’s going to be fine.” “Ballet 422” shows that more than he even knows.
“Ballet 422” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play three more times at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22nd and 27th at the AMC Loews Village 7 and at the Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea on April 23rd.