There is no such thing as a permanent piece of art. Paper yellows, paint cracks, celluloid burns, memories fade. But compared to those ephemeral forms, dance is even more transitory. The choreography can be recorded, but not the swing of limb and flair of line that exists for a moment on stage and then only for those who happen to witness it. Jody Lee Lipes’ sinuous documentary about a dancer at the New York City Ballet who’s given two months to choreograph an original ballet would seem to be an attempt to capture that fleeting sensation on film. But instead, it highlights the vast gulf between the great expanses of time given to creating an artwork and the finger-snap speed with which it can be delivered, and possibly forgotten.
At the time of filming in 2013, Justin Peck, the star of Ballet 422, was one of the 50 dancers in the company’s lowest rank: the Corps de Ballet. Peck was nevertheless given the opportunity to choreograph the company’s only new ballet for that year, their 422nd. Lipes takes us straight into it, slapping a few intertitles up for this skeletal background. Otherwise, there is no narration and little explanatory dialogue. We hang there in the background for the rehearsals and discussions as the ballet takes shape, given crumbs of information here and there and made to make of it what we can.
Peck has a muscular and intent but bright presence that helps focus such a context-deficient structure. Although his eyes carry the focus of every minutiae-obsessed director, he is burdened with none of the old-timer’s steely cynicism. Many times in consulting with costume or the lighting designer, he defers to their expertise, even suggesting that they should consult the dancers about their outfits. He is still a dancer, after all. In fact, Peck has to perform in another ballet on the same night after his premieres, switching quickly out of his glasses and suit and into makeup and a skin-tight outfit like some Lincoln Center variation on Superman. The film captures him at that hinge between performer and creator, scribbling down dance moves like musical notes at one moment and showing his dancers a microscopically different way to perfect their leaps at another.
Lipes’ decision to shear off almost any background for what’s happening here does help immerse the viewer in the moment. Certainly it would be nice to know what piece they were even choreographing to (a 1935 piece by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, it turns out), but it’s not necessary for an understanding that there is a lot riding on Peck’s ability to pull off something fresh for his big debut in a hall that seats over 2,500 ballet lovers. The countdown toward premiere night helps build tension like in many other performing arts documentaries of this sort, as does the lingering sensation that Peck’s diffidence could scupper his ability to pull it all together.
But Lipes, who has previously worked mostly as a cinematographer (Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Girls), doesn’t show an intuition for how to build drama or expand character in such a limited format and in a cursory 72-minute running time. His lead has the looks to play third vampire from the left in some teen paranormal saga, but isn’t given much opportunity here to expound on what he’s trying to accomplish. It’s even more frustrating when Lipes doesn’t see fit to record Peck’s ballet in full when it is finally presented. We are only given bits and glimpses of what the previous hour-plus of filmed rehearsal time has been building up to.
Ballet 422 is a fine-looking, easy to watch, and crisply constructed documentary on the pressures of making a collaborative work of art in a finite period of time. But by paying only glancing attention to the content, and focusing almost exclusively on the process itself, the films risks trivializing the whole entity that Peck and his fellow artists were struggling so hard to perfect, even just for a few fleeting moments on stage.