Jody Lee Lipes's enthralling documentary Ballet 422 chronicles the creation of an original performance under serious time constraint for one of the most discerning audiences in the world. But, most of all, Ballet 422 is a manifestation of talent and drive.
The film follows New York City Ballet up-and-coming dancer Justin Peck, who is commissioned to choreograph a new work for the institution. He is given two months of studio time to create its 422nd original ballet with access to all the venerable company’s resources. For only his third work for NYCB, the 25-year-old begins by using his camera phone to record himself trying out steps, and eventually collaborates with his fellow dancers, the musicians of the NYCB Orchestra, and scenic designers to present the world premiere of Paz de la Jolla at the David H. Koch Theater in January 2013.
A debut at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, Ballet 422 recalls Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse both in subject matter and vérité treatment, and offers the dual wish fulfillments of exploring the backstage world of the New York City Ballet and seeing a young artist living his dream. FilmLinc spoke with Jody Lee Lipes prior to Ballet 422's theatrical debut at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which begins this Friday. Lipes, a veteran choreographer of television and the big screen, took on Ballet 422, after seeing his wife (producer Ellen Bar) moderate a discussion with Peck a few years ago.
Lipes and Peck will take part in post-screening Q&As this weekend.
FilmLinc: How did you and Justin Peck meet and how did it segue into the genesis of this documentary?
Jody Lee Lipes: We got to know each other really through the making of this film. The first time I saw him and when I first became interested in him was when he was viewing a works-in-process presentation at the Guggenheim Museum that my wife Ellen [Bar] was moderating. They were doing a talk about his previous ballet, which was called The Year of the Rabbit, before it premiered. He talked about his work and as part of the presentation he got Tiler Peck, who is also in my film, to come up on stage and perform a solo that they had created, and he corrected her and she did it again. It was fascinating to watch him work. I had never seen a choreographer work that way before. I was very impressed with how concise and clear he was, even though he was only 24 years old and was doing it in front of 200 people at the Guggenheim.
I felt that he was beyond his years creatively and very very focused on his work to the extent that he wasn't [altering his work style] in front of this crowd of people. I thought that that would translate well into a documentary in that he wouldn't be [overly] conscious of the camera or acting for the camera and behaving in a strange way for the camera.
That was the first thing, and then when I saw The Year of the Rabbit premiere, I was so impressed with how entertaining it was. A lot of time you can go to the ballet and it will feel kind of boring, but this was very engaging, and it felt like even people who were [knowledgeable] about the ballet were also very impressed with it. So I felt that was a good sign that this guy's career would become more substantial and that he'd be making more great work. It wasn't the only thing we'd see coming from him. So I just started talking to Ellen about it. I thought that if he does make another ballet, we should go ahead and document it and see what would happen. Then he was commissioned almost immediately after that and so we started shooting. He later moved into our building as I began cutting the film.
FL: And Justin was totally onboard from the outset?
JLL: He and my wife Ellen knew each other well and she set up a conversation between the three of us. I basically said, “I really like your work and I want to document you making this new ballet. I don't know if anything is going to come of it,” which is basically my philosophy in any vérité project. But I said, “If it goes okay and you're comfortable with me shooting, then we'll keep going, but if you're not then I'll stop.” And so we began shooting for a couple days and it seemed like it was going well, so we just kept going.
FL: In a way, the making of the ballet itself is a vehicle for this film. You were more interested in capturing the creative process of someone who is talented and passionate. Is that a fair assessment of the film?
JLL: Yeah, that's a fair assessment. There's something about watching someone who is really really focused that's really fascinating to me. [Frequently] when I'm on a film set in my other life as a cinematographer or working on a commercial, when people are very invested in what they're doing, the politeness sort of drops away and you get to see who people really are in stressful conditions. So I think this is a way of accelerating your ability to get to know people. I think it's very true that when something happens on the subway for instance—say someone starts screaming—everyone turns to look at the person screaming, but I feel that the people watching the person screaming are really fascinating because they aren't thinking about themselves. They aren't thinking about being watched at that moment. They aren't considering how they're holding their face or their hands. They become who they really are. Justin is an example of that.
In college I worked on a Todd Solondz film, Palindromes. I sat next to him and moved his monitor around. When he was really into a shot, he'd just stare into a screen and mouth the words of the actors. I remember thinking that it was so fascinating that this guy was so into this thing that he was losing control of his mouth. That's interesting to me. I like to see how artists work because I think it says a lot about who they are and about the work that comes from it. The work itself can even become secondary.
FL: The access was quite impressive. Not just with Justin, but the other dancers, musicians, etc. There were moments of tension that you captured, like the time when Justin wanted to speak with the orchestra and the conductor seemed a bit put off, though he allowed it.
JLL: Yeah. It's not a movie about conflict, though there definitely are those moments. Ninety-nine percent of good movies are about conflict, but there is some tension in the film, but it's quite subtle. That is definitely one of those moments. But that comes from people wanting to do a good job. The conductor wants to do a good job, and that's his group. Those are his people. And he doesn't want anyone to mistakenly say the wrong thing or steer them in the wrong direction. [The conductor] also knows Justin is very young and he's being protective, which is rational and skeptical in a good way. I think Justin was doing the same thing…
So there's tension maybe, but what's really interesting here is seeing someone new learning the politics. Creatively, Justin is way ahead of where he should be. He's an exceptional choreographer. But on the political side when you're talking to all these different people like the lighting designer or the costume designers, it's fascinating to see him learn to talk to him. You can be a great artist, but there are other things you have to learn how to do that are also part of the equation and that may not be so easy [to grasp].
In the two years since we've shot the film, Justin has been through that [a lot more] so he's much more comfortable in those roles. I think this film captures a particular time in his career where he's advanced creatively but still learning these other roles…
FL: You have a lot of experience as a cinematographer on various projects. Did you relinquish much of that side of you when making Ballet 422?
JLL: With this kind of film, visuals and aesthetics are just not that important. It's important in the sense that you need to tell the story and you need to have the camera in the right place at the right time, but in terms of how it “looks,” it was the last thing on my mind. It's not what this world is about. It's about capturing what you need to capture to tell the story. Also it was important to have as little of an impact on your surroundings as you can.
FL: The ending is quite something. I don't want to give too much away, but I'll tease that in some ways it comes back full circle…
JLL: I didn't know that that was going to happen until just a few days before. And when Justin told me, I was initially kind of pissed off about it because I had already “decided” what the film was going to be in my mind. That didn't go along with the “script” that existed in my mind. But then I realized it was actually way better than what I had thought and way more about what the movie is about than I had thought. Then it became just about following along and seeing where it goes. He loves the art form and turning to what matters…