"Ballet 422" is a documentary as focused and no-frills as its title would indicate. An intimate and unusual behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a ballet, it may sound rarefied but has enough moments of truth and beauty to engage general audiences.
That act of creation takes place at the New York City Ballet, once the domain of influential choreographer George Balanchine and still considered one of the high temples of serious dance in this country.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ballet film: A review of the documentary "Ballet 422" in the Feb. 13 Calendar section described a scene in which choreographer Justin Peck sits under a poster of choreographer George Balanchine. The image on the wall was not of Balanchine but rather of Peck's grandfather, 1960s Freedom Ride activist James Peck. —
So you can imagine how 25-year-old dancer and promising choreographer Justin Peck must have felt when he was asked to create a ballet for the winter 2013 season. The good news was that he got to work with three of the company's principal dancers — Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar. The bad news was that he had less than two months to make it all happen.
Director Jody Lee Lipes follows Peck like a second skin during this period, providing a window into how ballets are made and letting us eavesdrop on the work and thought that are necessary so that what we see unfolding on stage can look effortless and beautiful.
As austere and rigorous in his filmmaking ideas as any ballet devotee, Lipes is a classic cinéma vérité practitioner in the observational mold of Albert Maysles and Frederick Wiseman.
That means no one in "Ballet 422" talks to the audience, and no one on-screen is identified in any way, not even with brief, unobtrusive type at the edge of the frame. This can be frustrating, especially for nonballetomanes who might need a little help, but it is finally a price worth paying for the access provided.
Since promoted to soloist, Peck was at the time a humble member of the troupe's corps de ballet, and "Ballet 422" begins with him both rehearsing for and then appearing in a Jerome Robbins ballet before focusing on his own work.
For his ballet, which came to be called "Paz de la Jolla," Peck chose music written in 1935 by composer Bohuslav Martinu called "Sinfonietta la Jolla," music we're told evoked Peck's Southern California upbringing.
The ballet building starts with Peck by himself in a rehearsal room, trying to figure out the steps and filming himself with a cellphone. We also see him alone in his apartment, sitting under a poster of Balanchine and looking at what he's recorded on his computer screen.
The best part of "Ballet 422" is when the dancers literally enter the picture, and Peck begins to work out the nuances of his ideas with them. Though he very much knows what he wants, Peck is not imperious, and it's charming to hear him say things to the dancers like "you make the mistakes look really good."
It is also a treat to be able to marvel at these dancers as they rehearse, to see them up close in their workout outfits and be dazzled by the remarkable things they are casually able to make their bodies do.
One by one, the other elements of the ballet are brought in, from lighting to the orchestra to the creation of costumes, which we see in fascinating detail, from the dyeing of fabric to the cutting of cloth to painstakingly fitting the outfits on the dancers.
"Ballet 422" is shaped around a countdown to opening night, and as titles on the screen tell us it's one month, one week, one day to the opening, we can feel the tension rise in Peck as well as his collaborators.
Finally the big night comes and, for better or worse, Lipes is too rigorous to actually let us see and enjoy much of the ballet Peck and company have worked so hard on. Instead we focus on the choreographer, watching him watch as much as watching ourselves. It feels like a shame, but on the other hand we've already seen more than enough to make us happy.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes