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Q&A: Star ballerina Tiler Peck is in L.A. to prove that BalletNow goes far beyond ‘Swan Lake’

Tiler Peck, at L.A.'s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, prepares for BalletNow.
Tiler Peck at L.A.'s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in preparation for this weekend’s BalletNow. Peck, a star dancer with the New York City Ballet, is curating and performing in the Music Center’s annual dance extravaganza.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

When New York City Ballet last performed in Los Angeles in 2004, Tiler Peck was an apprentice, so new to the company that she had yet to appear onstage in New York. The Bakersfield native has since become one of the company's most admired and versatile principal dancers. But while New Yorkers watched her advance rapidly through the ranks, dancing in a wide-ranging repertory with both technical brilliance and interpretive sophistication, Peck has been waiting to perform on a Los Angeles stage.

This week, she finally gets her chance, in a big way. She is the curator of BalletNow at the Music Center — three diverse programs that bring together leading dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet, the Royal Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet. Joining them — adding some surprising and notably contemporary elements — are Michelle Dorrance, an innovator in tap dance; veteran actor-dancer-clown Bill Irwin; and Virgil “Lil O” Gadson, a hip-hop performer and teacher who competed on “So You Think You Can Dance.”

I'm not impressed by tricks. I really wanted to bring dancers who move me.

— Tiler Peck, dancer and curator

Peck chose the performers and the repertory, which includes works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins — the longtime mainstays of her home company. She also included recent works by two of today's most highly regarded and prolific ballet choreographers, Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck (no relation), whose work has been integral to her troupe’s repertory in recent years.

While generously showcasing her colleagues, Tiler Peck is also keeping herself quite busy on these programs, dancing in nine works. She'll venture outside the classical realm, sharing the stage with Irwin in a witty duet that playfully contrasts their styles, and performing alongside Dorrance, Gadson and Byron Tittle (a member of Dorrance's company) in a work in which the dancers collaborate on the “improvography.”

Peck's been open and adventurous throughout her career, and is often cast in ballets by the many contemporary choreographers who have worked with New York City Ballet during her tenure. Each summer, she takes on unexpected choreographic challenges as a mainstay of the Vail International Dance Festival. She's no stranger to musical theater, having performed on Broadway in Susan Stroman's production of “The Music Man” at age 11. The two reunited in 2014 when Peck created the central role in “Little Dancer,” a new Stroman musical at the Kennedy Center. She has ventured into music video, with this month's release of her solo performance to Charlotte OC's “Medicine Man.”

The BalletNow programs have been shaped by Peck's eagerness to collaborate. Rachel Moore, the Music Center's president and chief executive, considers her the ideal choice for all that BalletNow aims to offer.

“We wanted BalletNow to have an element of surprise,” Moore says. “Audiences will have an opportunity to see artists collaborate across genres to create one-of-a-kind experiences. Tiler, in particular, has her finger on the pulse of where ballet is going in terms of its versatility, athleticism and artistry.”

The ballerina and curator recently discussed BalletNow in Manhattan.


What guided your planning for this second edition of BalletNow?

I wanted this program to show what ballet means today. People hear “ballet” and they think “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” While it is those things, I think today's dancers are really asked to do it all. I wanted to make sure that we had pieces like “Allegro Brillante” by Balanchine — which is one of my top five favorite things to dance, and I really wanted to perform it in California — and Jerome Robbins' “Fancy Free.”

I made it a point to find something for everybody on these programs. I wanted balletomanes to be able to see those masterpieces that they love. But at the same time, I wanted to open up their eyes, and also emphasize the new voices of today, pieces that I think a younger generation would be able to relate to.

What has this yearlong curating process involved?

It was actually harder than I thought. I knew which works I wanted to include. But then I also really do think that each piece is dependent on the dancer(s). It was a toss-up between which was first: picking the dancers, or picking the rep.

I went through many, many revisions. It was a lot to put together. So it's been a long journey, but it's been a huge learning experience, and I'm just so excited.

The main reason I chose these dancers is because they not only are amazing technicians, but most importantly, because of their artistry. I'm not impressed by tricks. I really wanted to bring dancers who move me, because those are the ones I love to watch the most. [ABT principal] Marcelo Gomes is the first person I reached out to. We're always trying to dance together, and with our schedules, it's not really possible. So we're really happy to finally make that happen.

‘Medicine Man,’ like BalletNow, is about pushing ballet into the forefront.... There was something about Charlotte OC's songs that I was really drawn into.

— Tiler Peck, dancer and curator

WATCH: Tiler Peck dances to Charlotte OC's "Medicine Man." Directed by Steven Cantor. Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.

Why was it important to present works by Justin Peck, the resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, to a Los Angeles audience?

I think he's so talented. What he's bringing to ballet is exactly what needs to happen right now. So when I was asked to do a BalletNow program — and considering what is ballet today? — obviously I thought Justin has to be on the program. So I really wanted to showcase at least two of his pieces. “In Creases” [his first work for NYCB, made in 2012] is so simple yet really perfect. I just love it. And I was excited to bring Jeanette Delgado, whose dancing I love, and Kleber Rebello from Miami City Ballet to perform Justin's “Chutes and Ladders,” which he made for that company. I think Justin is a really important person right now in pushing ballet forward.

How did the music video for Charlotte OC’s “Medicine Man” come about, and what was the experience like?

“Medicine Man,” like BalletNow, is about pushing ballet into the forefront and creating this platform for everybody to be able to relate to it. It's the first in a series, called Pointe to Pop.

I was sent some music that I might be interested to dance to. There was something about Charlotte OC's songs that I was really drawn into. We filmed in London. Christopher Wheeldon was there, and we got into the studio for three days. He made the structure. I wanted it to come across that I was listening to her music and expressing what I was feeling.

I want to get ballet out of the box people sometimes put it in. I just think there's so much more to it. That's what I also want to do with the BalletNow programs — I felt like all the dancers who are coming are really excited — because it's going to challenge them and really be a growing experience for everybody, artistically.


BalletNow

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

Tickets: $34 to $125

Info: (213) 972-0711, www.musiccenter.org/balletnow

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