Director Jody Lee Lipes delivers an exhilarating third feature with “Ballet 422,” tracing the two-month creation of a new work by New York City Ballet dancer/choreographer Justin Peck. Sampling various stages of the process from initial conception through rehearsals to premiere performance, the documentary moves with the same fluidity that characterizes Peck’s choreography. Himself a noted cinematographer, Lipes captures the dancers, musicians, costumers and lighting designers from a variety of angles within the larger canvas, always suggesting kinetic movement continuing beyond the frame. A delight for balletophiles, the film reps a beautifully crafted entree into the intricacies of collective endeavor.
Lipes makes films about artists at work (“Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same,” “NY Export: Opus Jazz,”), and “Ballet 422” focuses on the 25-year-old Peck as he conceives and shapes his third choreographed piece for NYCB, “Paz de la Jolla.” Expectations run high, given the rave reviews for Peck’s previous outing, “Year of the Rabbit.”
From Powell/Pressburger’s obsessive-compulsive “The Red Shoes” to Darren Aronofsky’s psychotic “Black Swan,” there has certainly been no dearth of fiction films about ballet. And in the documentary mode, Frederick Wiseman’s exhaustively nuts-and-bolts “Ballet” and “La Danse,” and Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s enchanting “Ballets Russes” notably deal with ensembles. Many films have attempted to depict the relationship between a director figure and his cast and crew, but “Ballet 422” effortlessly highlights the important contributions of every player in the production as they change or are transformed by Peck’s vision, in an intense yet matter-of-fact manner that eschews mystical, tyrannical or romantic archetypes.
Clear and forceful about what he wants, but open to input and actively seeking advice in less familiar areas, Peck is first seen experimenting by performing various movements, much as a composer might pick out notes on a piano, then abstractly diagramming them on paper. At the time of filming, Peck was a member of the corps de ballet (he has since become a soloist), and his meetings with fellow dancers, particularly leads Tiler Peck (no relation), Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, are studies in interaction as difficult moves are explained, discussed, demonstrated, realigned or revamped, with ballet master Albert Evans always on hand to facilitate the exchanges and pick up on details that might escape Peck.
Lipes captures quick vignettes with dancers shot head-on or from above, reflected off the sides of a piano, doubled in a mirror, caught on small cell-phone screens within the larger frame, or studiously pored over on Peck’s computer. These fragments alternate with intricately choreographed solos and pas de deux, and long, meditative stretches of Peck intently listening to a Tchaikovsky piece, or of conductor Andrews Sill rehearsing it (with no reverse-angle view of the orchestra being conducted). In one memorable shot from behind Peck’s head as he stands alone in the balcony, faraway dancers on the stage below caper in an out-of-focus impressionistic haze.
And so, unlike “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” which innovatively restaged Jerome Robbins’ NYCB ballet for the camera, “Ballet 422” never allows viewers a clear sense of the finished product, the elements never coming together in a final triumphant performance. Instead, in a long take, the camera follows Peck, who, after bowing to enthusiastic audience applause and acknowledging the laudatory exclamations of his peers, climbs stairways and traverses corridors to wind up in a dressing room where he doffs his suit, puts on makeup and prepares for his corps de ballet role in the program’s final number.