In NY Export: Opus Jazz (2010), one of this decade’s best New York City films, Jody Lee Lipes filmed the New York City Ballet as they danced the titular Jerome Robbins “ballet in sneakers” all around town, in stripped-down performances staged for the camera. For Ballet 422, which opens February 6, he again teamed with producer Ellen Bar, a former dancer and now the NYCB’s Director of Media Projects, for another intimate look at the company, this time with a focus on process. The film follows Justin Peck—then a 25-year-old member of the corps de ballet, now a soloist—as he choreographs and prepares a ballet for the company’s 2013 winter season. You can watch Ballet 422 twice in the time it takes to watch La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet once, but its 72 interview-free minutes are packed with engrossing glimpses of rehearsals, costume fittings, tech run-throughs, backstage downtime and patron gladhandling—all the component parts that go into assembling a ballet, here also assembled into a low-key narrative about art-making.
Lipes is a noted cinematographer, whose credits include the NYC microindie hits Tiny Furniture and Martha Marcy May Marlene; he’s currently completing work on Judd Apatow’s forthcoming Trainwreck. He and Bar, his wife, live in Clinton Hill, and are currently expecting their first child. He answered some questions of mine over email.
How did NY Export: Opus Jazz prepare you for this film, and how not? Obviously you’d already spent some time around the NYC Ballet, and filming dance performances, but did that film give you much of a head start on figuring out how film a rehearsal, where to put the camera and what to look for during preparations?
NY Export: Opus Jazz was a very designed, stylized, visual film that Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi (at the time both Soloists at New York City Ballet) hired me to write and co-direct. It was thoroughly planned, shot on anamorphic 35mm film and all about telling the story of the choreography that Jerome Robbins created.
Ballet 422 is kind of the opposite. It’s not a visually crafted film; nothing was set up or planned because it’s strict vérité filmmaking heavily influenced by filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman and Allan King. In a lot of ways Ballet 422 is not about the dance Justin Peck created, ballet or choreography at all—it’s about the process of making something. Justin is an exceptionally talented choreographer and New York City Ballet is one of the most prestigious companies in the world. Through the lens of Justin and City Ballet, we get to see what it’s like for a young artist with a big opportunity to be faced with all the decisions, collaborations, compromises, politics, and work that goes into making. In many ways, Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same, my first vérité feature about an artist based in Brooklyn preparing for his first big solo show in New York City, was where I really trained to tell this story. Both Brock and Ballet 422 are really about the same thing—artists working—but the two subjects couldn’t be more different.
The experience of Opus Jazz was a huge asset on Ballet 422 because I had already gained the trust of many of my subjects before walking into the room. Being able to just blend in is a huge leg up in vérité filmmaking because maintaining the truth of what you’re filming is that much easier.
In particular, there are early scenes of Peck improvising and brainstorming his choreography; or, later, traveling home and continuing to work on the ballet in his apartment. How do you (or, do you, at all) coordinate with your subject about filming his creative process? “Ok, tomorrow I expect to go home and get right into the work, no making tea first or checking Facebook or calling my mom…”
Yeah, Justin will say, “I’m going home,” and I’ll say, “Can I come?” and he’ll say “Yeah.” Beyond that, there isn’t much discussion or dialogue. If I know what’s going to happen or Justin is trying to help the camera see things, it usually gets cut out. It’s just not an organic feeling, so I try to keep my mouth shut and just be present.
I think that’s why Wiseman says that he tries not to learn anything about his subjects or the institutions that he makes films about before going in to shoot. My interpretation of that idea is that he’s trying to learn as he goes, just as the audience is learning as they watch the finished product. That blank slate mentality translates into the shooting of the film.
However, planning and discussion was really important in my collaboration with Ellen during production. Because she was a dancer with the company for over a decade, she knows that world better than I ever will. Ellen would point me in the right direction and say, “We should definitely shoot this day because it will be the first time…” Because we had no money, we needed to be really careful about the number of shoot days, so we were picking and choosing when to be present. Without that guidance from Ellen we would have never made it through the premiere with the resources we had.
Was the film always entirely observational, with no interviews or voiceovers, or was there a part of the process where you expected that the finished product would need them for interviews and analysis?
Talking heads are something I try to avoid at all costs at this point. I want the story to tell itself, and I want the subjects to show you who they are, not tell you what they’re thinking. I want things to unfold physically, as they are happening in time. That’s always the kind of documentary film that excites me most. I just don’t see a talking head doc ever competing with the power of Allan King’s A Married Couple.
When you’re directing, you’re also acting as cinematographer, but I’m especially curious about the editing on this film. There’s the natural nervous excitement in the lead-up to the performance, and the frustrations which are a part of the rehearsal process, but I one thing I really like about the film is that it doesn’t impose a lot of dramatic tension onto the material. What guided you in figuring out how your footage should fit together (or be discarded)?
Saela Davis edited Ballet 422, and she’s someone who just has a natural ability to tell a story and create a tone. We dumped 40-something hours of footage in Saela’s lap and I gave her a loose outline of the order of events I imagined in the assembly, and told her to totally ignore it. She did, and managed to craft a clear story on her own terms. We tried really hard to avoid the trappings of a meandering vérité film. We wanted the story to move well, and feel clear and propelled forward. However, at the end of the day, this is a process film, it isn’t a film about conflict or tension, so it’s challenging to make it move. Saela and I were pretty ruthless about taking out anything that didn’t move the story forward, anything that didn’t get us from a to b. That’s really the only rule, keep in all the information you need, every scene should create story progress, and find a few scenes that fit into that structure but say more about the subject than you can see on the surface.