Ballet 422, which opens this week at the Sundance, owes a very great debt to the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman (seen recently haunting Seattle Screens with his National Gallery) especially his dance films (Ballet, La Danse and Crazy Horse). The film follows 25-year-old dancer/choreographer Justin Peck as he has two months to put together the New York City Ballet’s 422nd original production, his first choreographic work on such a large scale. As in the Wiseman films, the movie consists mostly of length footage of people at work, proceeding from the early rehearsal stage through the final performance, with occasional looks at the backstage workers (particularly the wardrobe department) and “pillow shots” (prominently close-ups of shoes, a favorite subject in the Wisemans as well) providing syncopating breaks in the narrative. As with Wiseman, there are no direct-to-camera interviews or explanatory voiceovers; the cinematic apparatus remains for the most part invisible (though there is a moment when the cameraman hilariously realizes he can see himself in a rehearsal mirror and quickly reframes himself out of the shot). Lipes does employ a very few un-Wiseman-like explanatory title cards, which are necessary in the beginning to set the story, but also serve to mark time as the clock ticks on our hero’s deadline.
The rehearsal footage is great, as is Peck’s production itself, Paz de la Jolla. What we see of it is brisk and lively and charmingly danced, particularly the three leads (Tiler Peck (no relation to Justin), Stirling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar). The company appears to have a warm and friendly camaraderie: it’s much funnier than the Wiseman films (at one point one of the dancers in the chorus is worried about her outfit. A wardrobe woman tells her: “Girl, you got nothing to worry about. If it comes out, it’s cute.”) It’s a fun and fascinating movie, best in its quiet moments, such as Justin Peck’s long trip home to his apartment, where he immediately begins to work, or the revelation that comes at the end when, after the successful premier of his work, as the applause has barely died down, we see Peck make his way backstage, alone down an empty hall to his dressing room. He changes his clothes and begins putting his makeup on. He’s performing in the third performance of the night, as part of the chorus. As the genericness of the documentary’s title implies, despite all the artistry and inspiration and fun and music and dance, the ballet is, as much as it is anything else, work.
Ballet 422 opens Friday, March 12th at the Sundance Cinemas Seattle.