The last few prominent arthouse dance movies took ballet off the stage and into the real world: NY Export: Opus Jazz staged Jerome Robbins’s choreography all over New York City: the High Line, Coney Island, the McCarren Park Pool. And Wim Wenders’s Pina had a habit of letting the members of Bausch’s troupe do their thing on mountainsides or in the woods. It’s like the intro of West Side Story, shot in a neighborhood since razed, so much more thrilling and full of life than the rest of the film, cast and crew seemingly feeding off the energy of the real streets and buildings. There’s provocation in taking an art form so thoroughly theatrical and taking it off the stage—and, potentially, it makes it more interesting for people who aren’t interested in dance.
More than any other medium (except maybe opera), dance bewilders unfamiliar audiences with its stories told and emotions expressed in stylized movement. So Jody Lee Lipes, the esteemed indie cinematographer and sometimes Girls director, aims to demystify it, taking the opposite tack he did in NY Export in his newest film, Ballet 422 (which screens at Tribeca tonight, Wednesday night, and Sunday morning): instead of putting the theater out into the world, he takes the world into the theater, following a 25-year-old choreographer, a member of New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet (basically the chorus), as he creates a dance from scratch for the company, its 422nd new work (thus the title) and the only new dance of that season. He has two months.
Lipes doesn’t interview anyone: he just watches. That is, rather than interrogate the players, he interrogates the milieux, a fly-on-the-wall capturing preparations, warmups, rehearsals, and the process of collaborative creation: all the work that goes into producing a ballet at every level, from the politics of dancers vs. orchestra to the costume and lighting designers. But Lipes’s slyest move is making you want choreographer Justin Peck to succeed: the 73-minute movie hardly slows down with him to get personal, but a quick shot of his commute or stepping into his empty apartment are more than enough to lend him offstage humanity: the loneliness of the artist. His worried face makes him sympathetic. Ballet 422 is also a tribute to dedication: at the January 2013 premiere, Peck’s new work is the first piece of the evening, and he watches nervously from the audience in a tuxedo; for the third, he’s in costume, dancing with the rest of his companymates, no longer the star—just another piece of the machine that brings the artist’s vision to life.
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