Lord of This Dance, by Scott Nye
At the center of nearly all cinema is the concern of something loosely defined in cinephile circles as “bodies in space,” or the perspective the camera lends to watching people interact with their environment. And few interact as dynamically or expressively as dancers. As exhilarating as it is to watch such performers on a stage, in a practice room, or even on the street, the added dimension of camera movement, angles, and lenses creates a whole new dynamic, one both immediate and vast.
Jody Lee Lipes’ Ballet 422 is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a new work at the New York City Ballet. Given what I’ve outlined above, the bulk of this film is – almost by definition – compelling, as we watch 25-year-old choreographer Justin Peck (also a full-time dancer in the Ballet) and his dancers practice, explore, and abandon various concepts throughout its creation. Lipes has directed a couple of documentaries before this, but is better known as the cinematographer behind such films as Martha Marcy May Marlene, Tiny Furniture, and Afterschool. Doing most of his own camerawork here (along with Nick Bentgen), he takes an approach that could be described as removed invasion. His subjects never acknowledge his presence, but he shoots the film like a narrative feature. He gives us not only a clear protagonist with a clear objective, but pursues him and his supporting players with the sort of intimacy and focus usually only found in documentaries that make the filmmaker a cohort. The dances feel like an extension of the inner narrative, expressing the hesitations, miscommunications, and victories in their collaborations just as much as they are building to Peck’s final vision.
Peck himself makes for a fascinating central figure. He rarely communicates directly the joy of dance, or the passion of what he’s trying to do with this piece. His interactions with the dancers come down to a series of very direct commands, his emotional remove becoming almost unnerving at times. When Lipes follows him home, Peck seems utterly alone, literally and figuratively. He doesn’t seem to have a life outside the ballet, but he also doesn’t seem overtly consumed by that, either. Working alongside lighting designers, musicians, costumers, and other contributors to the organization, he seems incapable of not accidentally insulting them. He’s asked at one point to personally thank the orchestra for their hard work; after the conductor hesitantly lets him do so, his speech becomes more instructional than encouraging. At his premiere, he can only awkwardly acknowledge the enthusiasm of others, rather than profess his own. In the 20th century, the difficult artistic genius was defined by their extroversion, their inability to restrain their point of view; the modern model is more defined by their inability to relate anything to anyone.
Ballet 422 is filled with these sort of observations, explored without being stated. The temptation is to associate fly-on-the-wall documentaries with the work of Frederick Wiseman (who gave his own perspective on a ballet institution in La Danse), and there are certain commonalities. But where Wiseman’s focus is on how the institution affects and shapes the people within it, Lipes is more attuned to how the people shape – and what their personality says – about the institution. A title card introduces us to the New York City Ballet’s illustrious past, having existed now for nearly 70 years. The film’s title refers to his work being the 422nd new ballet created by the company. It carefully, elegantly posits his contribution, as major as it seems in the moment, along a continuum, one of many that will pass through its halls, before its audiences’ eyes, one part of a program that’s one part of their night that’s only a small part of their lives within a small section of a very large city. When art is so quickly consumed and disposed, the act of creation must be its own reward.
Ballet 422 opens this week at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West LA, South Coast Village 3 in Santa Ana, Shattuck Cinemas 10 in Berkeley, and Embarcadero Center Cinemas 5 in San Francisco