The New York City Ballet, up close and intimate, as the company counts down to its 422nd work

In a recent review in The New York Times, the chief dance critic, Alistair Macaulay, wrote that Justin Peck’s new work, titled New Blood, “confirms that this choreographer is not just commandingly gifted but also possessed of exceptional compositional virtuosity.

“The brilliant group patterns of the opening and the central section of successive duets in which A dances with B, next B with C, and so on, almost as if regardless of gender, are remarkable feats. The steps are always a pleasure, especially in their mastery of off-balance legwork; the cast (seven men, six women) is excellent”.

New Blood was Peck’s ninth work for the New York City Ballet and if you would like to see what makes the choreographer tick, I can highly recommend one of the best dance documentaries I’ve seen in many years.

Called Ballet 422, the documentary takes the audience backstage for an intimate look at the creation of Peck’s earlier ballet, Paz de la Jolla, choreographed for the New York City Ballet in 2013.

When the documentary was filmed, Peck was just 25 and a corps de ballet member of the company. Now he’s a soloist and the resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet.

The unpretentious title refers to Paz de la Jolla’s place in the New York City Ballet’s repertoire. It was the company’s 422nd original work.

Although it’s a fly on the wall documentary, Ballet 422 is not intrusive in the manner of some backstage documentaries, among them the 1996 TV series, The House, filmed by the BBC.

There are no clichés, no rehearsal room bicker, no images of feet mashed up by pointe shoes, just truthfulness and interesting insights.

Jody Lee Lipes, the director of Ballet 422, is connected to the NYCB through his wife, Ellen Bar, a former dancer and now the director of media projects for the company.

Bar has developed and produced more than 50 short documentaries and last year she was the producer of Ballet 422.

The film premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and was later acquired by Magnolia Pictures.

Ballet 422 has not been released in Australia but it’s available on iTunes or as a DVD.

Lipes has said he wanted the film to be “something that people could follow if they didn’t know a single ballet term or know anything about the institution itself. Because to me, it’s not really about ballet, it’s about the creative process in general”.

The most remarkable element of the process is the way in which Peck and the ballet master, Albert Evans, rehearse the ballet’s three principal dancers, the two women, Sterling Hyltin and Tiler Peck, and the male principal, Amar Ramasar.

Although the cameras follow their every movement, Peck, Evans and the dancers, appear completely immersed and focussed on the here and now, showing no sign that they’re performing for the film crew.

The documentary encompasses two months of rehearsals within 75 minutes of footage.

Lipes shoots from all angles, but often returns to a narrow passageway, either a corridor or stairs. The camera also follows Peck as he leaves the theatre, takes the subway and returns home, where we can see his apartment with a photo of George Balanchine on a wall, and Peck focussing on his laptop screen as he watches film of the rehearsals.

Backstage, we can see glimpses of the dancers preparing for the stage, applying makeup, blow drying their hair and warming up at the barre.

Tension is always in the air, as the narrative follows the countdown to opening night – two weeks to go, one week to the premiere, and finally the day of the premiere.

We see Peck and the dancers supported by the pianist, conductor, and costume and lighting designers and the way Peck relinquishes his backstage role to put on a suit and become a member of the audience for opening night. As the ballet ends, he leaves his seat for the curtain call on stage.

After the applause and a quick change into his costume, it’s business as usual. Peck returns to the stage for the next ballet, but this time, as a humble corps de ballet member.

It’s that kind of continuity that helps tell the story so well.

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Jody Lee Lipes, director of Ballet 422

Tyler Peck prepares for the premiere of Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla

Ballet 422 poster

Justin Peck rehearses the New York City Ballet principals, Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar for Ballet 422