New York City Ballet

Dancing to Success: Jody Lee Lipes’s ‘Ballet 422’ Explores What It Takes to Put on a Ballet

A new movie at the Tribeca Film Festival takes an intimate look at young dancer Justin Peck's road to opening night as he choreographs the 422nd ballet for the New York City Ballet.

Jody Lee Lipes

In Ballet 422, a new documentary debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Jody Lee Lipes captures the two-month conception, preparation, and execution of the New York City Ballet’s 422nd new ballet under the helm of an up-and-coming choreographer, 25-year-old Justin Peck, who was dubbed “the third important choreographer to have emerged in classical ballet this century,” by The New York Times’s dance critic Alastair Macaulay.

The film opens with the following statement: “The New York City Ballet is one of the foremost creative dance companies in the world.” Founded in 1948, the NYCB consists of 91 full-time dancers, but Peck, who joined the Corps de Ballet (the group’s lowest tier of dancers) in 2007, is the only current NYCB dancer who choreographs for the company.

“At first, Justin was just one of the dancers that worked with my wife [Ellen Bar, former soloist at the NYCB, who now serves as its director of media projects, and producer of Ballet 422],” Lipes told The Daily Beast when asked how he discovered Peck’s talent. “It wasn’t until I saw him choreograph on Tiler Peck [principal dancer at the NYCB, no relation to Justin] for the first time that I knew I wanted to make a film about him.”

Set to a musical composition from 1935, Ballet #422—later titled Paz de la Jolla—was the only new ballet commissioned for the 2013 winter season. The film is quiet, and is less an introspective look into Peck’s world than a retrospective examination of the relationship between dancers and choreographers, the intricate process of formulating and producing a new ballet, and—most importantly—an understanding of the grace and beauty of dance behind the curtain at one of the most coveted and respected companies in the world.

Lipes himself—whose directing credits include HBO’s Girls and artist documentary Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same, and cinematography credits encompass Lena Dunham’s debut film Tiny Furniture, as well as the upcoming Judd Apatow film, Trainwreck—first became intrigued by the NYCB in 2007, when Bar commissioned him to write, co-direct, and shoot the film NY Export: Opus Jazz. “I had to go to the ballet a lot so I could start to learn about Jerome Robbins’ work,” he said. “I’ll always remember the first time I watched The Cage from the wings. When I saw it that way, I had a much deeper emotional connection to it. There’s nothing like standing right next to someone seconds before they have to run out in front of that many people and perform at that level. You can just feel the intensity of the moment much more.”

While Ballet 422 is Lipes’s second verite film spotlighting a creative person making art, the specific world it explores is very different; they are “miles away from each other,” Lipes says. However, Ballet 422, like Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same, focuses more on the preparation of the performance rather than the final product.

“The ending [of “Ballet 422"] is really important,” Lipes told IndieWire. That’s my favorite part of the film. I think it took me a little while to understand this idea that you can do really great work in whatever artistic pursuit you’re going after, and you can be recognized, but you have to keep doing it. You can never stop. You go back to zero and start all over again. You can’t rest on your laurels. It may get easier in some ways and harder in other ways. The fact that Justin went back to dancing after all of this was really something.”

Peck, who continues to dance as a soloist in the NYCB, will premiere his next ballet, Everywhere We Go, at the City Ballet’s spring gala on May 8.