As the resident choreographer and principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, Justin Peck has become one of the most prominent names in the ballet world and beyond.
Justin Peck never wanted to be a ballet dancer. That is, until his mom pushed him to enroll as a supernumerary in American Ballet Theatre’s production of Giselle. Resistant at first, he finally gave in and unknowingly experienced the life-altering moment that showed him how powerful male dancers could be. And so at 13, a relatively late starting age for the art form, Peck began to saunter down his ballet path.
Since then the 30 year old has created a fascinating repertoire built on hard work, dedication, passion, and plenty of sweat as a principal dancer at New York City Ballet (NYCB), acclaimed choreographer for ballet companies stateside and abroad, documentary star, Tony award-winning Broadway choreographer as well as music video and Hollywood movie choreographer.
From Student to Teacher
NYCB, one of the most eminent American dance companies and the country’s largest, was founded in 1948. Decades later, Peck, a shy kid from California who would become one of the biggest names in ballet, stepped through the doors of The School of American Ballet, NYCB’s official academy, and never turned back.
In 2006, Peck joined NYCB as one of the company’s 50 corps de ballet dancers and pirouetted to the rank of soloist by 2013. While continuing to perform ballets others had created, he attended the New York Choreographic Institute, an affiliate of NYCB, to experiment with movement and work on his choreographic voice.
After receiving his first yearlong choreography residency with NYCB in 2011, Peck became the only current dancer to also choreograph. Peck created six works for the company in the span of only two years, including Year of the Rabbit, which was his first nomination for a Benois de la Danse award (the Oscars of the ballet world) and Paz de la Jolla, the centerpiece of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival documentary, Ballet 422.
The Making of a Masterpiece
At 25, when most recent grads are still trying to find their way in the workplace, Peck created the 422nd original ballet for NYCB, and the only new ballet of the 2013 winter season. He only had two months to create it—and he had cameras following him around day and night to document the process.
Ballet 422 takes viewers behind the curtain and tells Peck’s hardscrabble journey of creating Paz de la Jolla, the semi-autobiographical piece reflective of his upbringing in San Diego. There are no diva moments, hints of braggadocio, or nervous breakdowns here. Simply a story told through Peck’s eyes as his usual soft-spoken demeanor intensifies while he spends endless hours sketching, directing, correcting, and working with the dancers, costume designers, orchestra musicians, and lighting crew to create his 20-minute piece.
“Dancing is a great meeting point between many different artistic mediums,” he said while working at the Miami City Ballet (MCB). “It’s a place where art, lighting, music, movement, and story can all come together and exist in one place.”
The Washington Post called the film a quietly powerful documentary. After the ballet’s debut the New York Times wrote, “after the triumph of his Year of the Rabbit in October, expectations soared like a kite on an updraft. Mr. Peck did not disappoint. He’s still flying.”
Soaring. It’s something Peck does on stage and off. As a dancer, his elegant movements paired with powerful athleticism spotlight his virtuosity and captivate audiences. The Wall Street Journal wrote he was, “at the forefront of an up-and-coming generation of male ballet stars who are infusing the form with youthful energy and cross-cultural appeal.”
When asked what it feels like when he’s dancing, Peck replied on CBS’ Sunday Morning, “it’s one of the few moments where you are not conscious of anything in the past or anything in the future. You are totally caught up in the present moment, and that’s a really rare experience to have in life in general.”
As a choreographer, he continues to enchant in other unique ways. Peck’s process starts with listening to a single piece of music hundreds of times, analyzing the score and, once familiar with the music, notating counts with steps and sketching stage positions on the white lineless pages of his spiral ring notebook. Then it’s time to get inside the studio with the dancers to continue creating.
Those steps challenge dancers with intense, high energy, and dramatic compositions that at times are complemented with nontraditional music, like that of indie folk rocker Sufjan Stevens, whom Peck has collaborated with several times.
“I do some of my best work to his music,” Peck told Vanity Fair. “I just find it very inspiring on a personal level.”
He’s also put dancers in sneakers instead of pointe shoes, paired two male dancers together, and incorporated tap (a nod to his childhood) in his ballets. Cleverly, he has found a way to reach younger audiences through social media by pioneering a different type of movement—producing short trailers to upcoming ballets shot in unexpected locations, like an empty New York subway station or Miami’s dazzling Wynwood Walls.
“I don’t want ballet to feel like an elitist art form, which is what it was traditionally,” he said on Sunday Morning. “Now I feel like there has to be an accessibility to it and a way for audiences to connect to the work.”
Peck’s work is certainly charming worldwide audiences and ballet companies alike. He’s created more than 30 ballets for companies including the Paris Opera Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, LA Dance Project, Houston Ballet, MCB, and San Francisco Ballet. Sixteen of those 30 were created for NYCB, where he has been the resident choreographer since 2014. Peck is only the second person in the company’s history to hold this title.
Welcome to Miami
When MCB asked Peck to collaborate on a piece, he leaped at the opportunity to work with a company he had admired for a long time. It was 2013, his career was exploding, and he saw this as an exciting chance to work with new material. The project, Chutes & Ladders, was a short pas de deux performed at the New World Symphony.
“The work is definitely more abstract, very stark, and minimalist in order to keep the focus on the music and the dancing relation to that music,” Peck said.
His next collaborative project with MCB brought the heat to an already sultry Miami setting. Peck’s 2015 ballet, Heatscape, was inspired by the colors, angles, and energy of the street art on display at Miami’s Wynwood Walls. One specific artist that stood out was Shepard Fairey, the notable street artist who combines pop art and graffiti into bold, colorful, and hypnotizing art. The mandala-like designs that frequent Fariey’s art inspired Peck. The result was a thrilling production where the corps de ballet constantly changes shape and directions creating a ripple-like kaleidoscope of movement.
“I think it’s really important to keep working with artists of this generation, whether they be visual artists, or designers, or composers,” Peck told Vanity Fair.
Taking Center Stage
Expanding his creativity outside of the ballet world, Peck took on the task of choreographing the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel on Broadway. Partnering with Tony Award-winning director Jack O’Brien, the duo gave new life and a modern twist to one of the most beloved musicals.
“There is an opportunity to interject a new voice into this show in regards to the choreography,” Peck told Playbill. “I think it’s great we’re able to update and create Carousel for the 21st century.“
He is used to taking audacious risks, and for his Broadway musical debut, they paid off. He received rave reviews from cognoscenti outside of his ballet universe—winning a Tony Award for Best Choreography, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Choreography.
The New York Times agreed and raved the show has, “some of the most thrilling and original dancing seen on Broadway in years.” Even his director chimed in on CBS Sunday Morning calling Peck a genius bursting with talent.
In another attempt to step outside of his ballet comfort zone, Peck choreographed Red Sparrow, the 20th Century Fox film starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian ballerina turned spy. Peck also collaborated with fashion label Opening Ceremony during New York Fashion Week to create a piece called The Times Are Racing, where dancers pretending to be models dressed in the label’s spring collection and faux tumbled down the runway. According to the New Yorker, Peck pitched the project as “Fred Astaire meets street dancing meets ballet.” And not to be outdone by his previous success, in September 2018, Peck announced he had accepted the task of choreographing the Stephen Spielberg directed revival of West Side Story. Originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins, a titan of the ballet and Broadway worlds, the new movie promises to be as sweeping an epic as the first iteration.
Time management is something Peck has to be good at. In between rehearsals for NYCB shows where he is either dancing or choreographing, he also choreographed a Broadway show, created ballets for other notable companies, and got engaged to Patricia Delgado, his longtime girlfriend. The pair met in 2013 when Peck was in Miami for his collaboration with New World Symphony and MCB, where she was a principal dancer. After 20 years with MCB, Delgado left about three years ago and moved to New York City, closer to Peck and to new opportunities.
One of those occasions came in the form of a music video. Peck was asked to choreograph The National’s music video for the 2017 song “Dark Side of the Gym”. It exposed him to a new industry, but more importantly gave him the chance to costar in the passionate piece with Delgado.
For Peck, it’s really all about that—collaborating with talented artists and expanding boundaries.
“I’m always trying to figure out where I want to fall between paying respect to the classical form and trying stuff that pushes the envelope,” Peck confessed to the New York Times.
If all the world’s a stage, the ballet of Peck’s life is still in the first act with everyone at the edge of their seats waiting to see how he’s going to evolve and change the ballet world and beyond.
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